A journey down memory lane.
Since I can write, I have kept a diary. A diary of everything that surrounded me: New words learned from the grown ups, collections of leaves and later of photographies, random thoughts, doubts and plans that crossed my mind, travels, encounters and conversations…a written collection of memories. Last summer my parents sold the house I grew up in and so it was time for me to clean up a bit, to put away old clothes and to pack up boxes filled with yellowing notebooks.
On those summer days spent in the attic going through old stuff, books, photographs, I came to think about our memory. How does our brain work? Why do we remember certain things and forget others? Why do some smells evoke past events? Why do we sometimes feel like we have experienced a situation already?
I like to think of my brain as a huge library but instead of books it has big drawers or boxes in the shelves. Boxes that are labeled and well organized according to their tags and chronology. I imagine myself opening the big oak double door to the library, looking through the five meter high shelves and pulling out a drawer to drop a folder with newly acquired information inside. I imagine my memories and knowledge to be stored away in a very organized and accessible manner.
As I skimmed through the old diaries in the attic of my parent’s house I noticed that some entries felt familiar whereas others seemed new to me. I came to realize that the library in my head was not as well organized as I had thought. I learned about the randomness of our memory.
Memory is like a crazy woman who hoards coloured rags and throws away food.
Our memories are random, not all events that happen to us are committed to memory. Not all experiences are registered in our library. And those memories that we do form, do not exist as one single unit, but rather are reconstructed each time we need them.
What did you have for dinner last night? – What happened just now in your brain? You did not push open the heavy door to the library and reach for the box labeled ‘June 1st, Sunday dinner’ but rather you reconstructed the event like a puzzle made up of different pieces. You puzzled together the conversations, smells and chronology to form those frames of memory.
Each time we retrieve a memory, we construct it a new. We puzzle it together from different pieces of information and from different sources. Our memory never stays the same and is highly influenced by who we are now and by the knowledge, experience and emotion we have gained in the time span between the memory event and the now.
This makes our memories biased. Memories are as much about the past as they are about the present.
What did you do on your first day of school? – We remember our past by telling a story about it. And those stories are best told in company. Remembering is a very social process. Through conversation with others our memories become structured and are weaved into a story. A story we will remember.
The earliest memory I have is from when I was eight years old and playing in the backyard with my siblings. I remember one afternoon in the fall picking up brown and orange leaves for my collection because we have talked about it a lot in my family, because we have weaved this event into a story and because I have recollected it several times. I don’t remember things that happened to me as a toddler because at that age I was not skilled enough at organizing, making sense and talking about my autobiographical knowledge.
In order to remember we need some kind of understanding of the self: we need an identity, consciousness and language.
On those summer afternoons when I was reading through my words written many years ago and looking at photographs of a much younger me, I was reconstructing little sequences in my head. I was reconstructing those memories with pieces of information I put together from the past but also with emotions and knowledge from the grownup Bettina.
Every time I will read those old diaries my recollections will be different, tainted by the current me.
In this way, Memory is an artist as much as it is a scientist.
Knowledge and quotes taken from the book “Pieces of Light: The new science of memory” written by Charles Fernyhough.