Daily Archives: October 9, 2006

On Memory

My friend Verna has an interesting post on her blog, Out of the Cube, on Memory. In it, she says that “memory is so squirrely, so amorphous, so slippery and unreliable”, that it may tell you something which you know isn’t true. I found that so true that I needed to add my comments on memory to hers.

I’ve entered a phase of my life (yes, the dreaded M) where memory is affected by changing hormone levels. This is no end of frustration for my husband, who has to repeat himself endlessly. This memory problem is compounded by the fact that I have always had such vivid dreams –and recall them so sharply– that I sometimes “remember” them as if the events in them had really happened. Add to the mixture that I’m a writer and I live in make-believe, but real to me, worlds, and memory becomes more of a fuzzy concept than something tangible.

We have a saying in French: Memory is a faculty that forgets (La mémoire est une faculté qui oublie)

I’ve had a similar experience than you had with memory when I’ve compared what my parents remember of events in my childhood with my own recollections. What we remember is obviously tainted with what was important in our lives at the time. Being a child, even insignificant events have weight, whereas adults must parse their attention over many simultaneous events.

There’s also another factor, that of “stolen memories”. According to an article in World Science, a study from Duke University concluded that

“some of the memories in which we play a leading role might in fact have been the experiences of others”

although in an ironic twist of the brain,

People “claim for themselves memories for achievements and suffered misfortunes but are more likely to give away memories of personal wrongdoing,”

Appropriating memories happens only for events of little importance, however. The article also confirms that I’m not the only one confusing dreams and reality:

People sometimes can’t figure out whether they dreamt something or it really happened to them.

Then there are the memories implanted by others. Is the memory my husband recalls of walking on the beach with a stick when he was four his own, or the result of a tale told dozens of times by his mother? How can he know? He can’t go back to that time before the first recounting of the story and hop into his brain to see if the memory is there. So all he can do is decide whether it’s a “real” memory or not and stick with that.

This mixup of memory is also a real threat for ageing people, though. With the threat of senility or Alzheimer’s disease on the corner, a loss of memory can engender real panic. Of course, that panic inhibits memory, and they enter a vicious circle where they persuade themselves they’re losing their memory.

With all this complexity and doubt, it’s a wonder we remember anything real at all. There are however, techniques to sharpen the ability to remember. Mintools provides some, in easy-to-try installments. Just in case you forgot.

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