Guess what? It may be a good thing that you can’t remember what they’ve told you about your memories. As it turns out, you don’t have to be a savant, or try to associate facts with objects, or colors, or smells. It won’t hurt if you do, but either way, it won’t make much of a difference to most, in the big scheme.
Some exercise their recalling skills like a muscle. Others picture things as if in a photograph. People either struggle to remember or choose to forget. And yes, there are those genius. But if you’re none of the above, no reason to despair; it’s been quite a while since we too gave up all hope of ever finding that extra set of keys anyway.
We could save some time and say that science has no clue, but that would be an over-simplification. The more researchers dig, the more distractions they find, affecting how we remember things, produce memories, and even adopt somebody else’s recollections. One thing is for sure: some people are really prodigies recalling details of the past.
How we deal with our memories is, of course, highly personal. We strive to portray our private history as an accurate and favorable reflection of who we think we are. But many things conspire against such a seamless narrative, the first thing being exactly that: the narrative.
To tell the story, we need to make sense and fill in the blanks, the details that reality not always provides. It’s also disturbing to come across someone who has a different take on the same events. But that’s exactly what siblings and spouses often do. Not to go overboard here, but that’s why we sometimes hate them so much.
THE WEATHER ON FEB. 23, 1975
How do you call someone who didn’t walk until he was four, couldn’t button up his own shirt, had trouble with even the most basic motor skills, had an average 87 I.Q. and, nevertheless, could recall every single weather report going back over 40 years? a Rain Man, or his birth name, Kim Peek, to whom the term savant was defined.
When he died in 2010, he’d become worldwide known, thanks to his portrayal by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 movie. And yet, even with such a gifted actor at the helm, the film barely scratched the mystery of what it means to be someone with such an astonishing mental ability, and yet living inside a mind of a pre-teen.
Many others with similar uncontrollable talents have been known by science. But now, there’s a new breed of ‘recallers,’ as we’d call them, who’re fully functional human beings, unlike Peek and other savants, NPR’s Michelle Trudeau reports. University of California at Irvine memory researcher James McGaugh, for example, has been studying 11 of such individuals. Many are known as autistic, or have Asperger’s Syndrome.
They’re no better than anyone else at performing standard memory tests, such as repeating back lists, though. What they excel at is recalling, in piecing detail, events of their own lives. A person in the group could recall, for instance, an assortment of things that happened on a particular day more than 30 years ago, just because that’s when his football team lost.
EXPERIENCE VS. NARRATIVE
The research itself, which involves brain scans and thorough psychological evaluation of the participants, breaks new ground into the study of how we remember some things, and completely forget others. In a recent Ted Conference, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman discussed yet another approach to tackle the complex subject.
The founder of behavioral economics finds distinction between our ‘experiencing selves’ and our ‘remembering selves,’ and how we often fail to fully appreciate either one of them. Thus, we may enjoy watching our team playing, and yet, once recollecting that event, we may also qualify it, by adding that we had a nasty argument in the parking lot. That somehow taints the experience.
Kahneman believes that whatever happened during the game, that gave us so much pleasure, should never be mixed up with our narrative about that particular night, which may include the altercation with a crazy driver. Being at the game fulfills our need for emotional connection and enjoyment, while ‘telling the story’ about it serves another entirely different purpose.
The confusion may prevent one’s sense of fulfillment, of experiencing feelings of happiness. For Kahneman, we usually place a higher currency on the formation of past and future memories, regardless of the quality of the experiences themselves. In other words, we seem to be better prepared to embrace the story of what happened to us over the experience itself.
INNER RECALL VS. CLOUD STORAGE
Tweetage Wasteland’s Dave Pell has yet another interesting take on how our memories undergo periodic ‘upgrades,’ and how the digital-savvy generation may wind up completely transferring the intimacy of a personal memory to a digital disc, accessible 24/7, and with the additional advantage of not requiring to remember all details.
That is so because, instead of a memory, you may now have a high-definition picture of an event, and details may be irrelevant. And you can even store such a memory somewhere else, other than inside your vulnerable mind’s files, as you already do with all your other ‘physical’ files.
The digitalization of one’s personal history may be the cultural equivalent to what the personal diary used to be to denizens of the 1800s. But this transference of ‘storage spaces’ may as well be a new step towards our bodies’ obsolescence. As Pell puts it, we’ve already ‘ceded many of our remembering duties (birthdays, schedules, phone numbers) to a hard drive in the cloud.’
He mentions tennis great John McEnroe, who still refuses to watch his legendary 1980 Wimbledon final against Bjorn Borg, preferring his personal recollection over the video version of it. In that, he speaks as a truly man of the 20th century. We just don’t know how he prevents his own kids from trying to describe it to him.
MAKING SENSE & THE MEMORY MUSCLE
There’s now better evidence than ever that Sigmund Freud‘s theory of repressed unwanted memories makes sense and, at times, it’s a condition of survival at least for a while, for victims of childhood trauma. And that toddlers can in fact recollect complex events that sometimes predate their own developmental brain abilities. Old Sig’s 159th birthday was yesterday, by the way.
Apart from these two extremes, there’s the case of Solomon Shereshevsky, a Russian who could recite a whole speech after listening to it once, or memorized math formulas, foreign language excerpts, and even sequences of numbers or nonsense syllables. This astounding ability came with a price, of course: he lost the ability of making sense out of what he memorized.
According to Alexander R. Luria, a psychologist who wrote about him in The Mind of a Mnemonist, ‘S’ could not ‘fathom the meaning of a story, because the words got in the way.’ Despite this crippling mental blockage, he went on to make a living as an almost sideshow attraction, a performer who could instantaneously recount a whole story, word by word.
Another extreme, and contemporary, example is that of Joshua Foer, an American journalist who wrote Moonwalking With Einstein, an account of his year of memory training. That led him to compete all the way to the finals of the U.S.A. Memory Championship (yes, there’s one), against some of the country’s ‘best mental athletes.’
On his book, Foer argues that ‘memories are indeed improvable,’ and he went on to study and practice techniques tracing back to Greeks and Romans, that allowed him to train his brain, as one would pursue bodybuilding or classical singing. Along the way, he touches on the ‘externalization of the memory’ in modern culture, and the oral tradition of storytelling in Homer times.
STOLEN & COMPETING ACCOUNTS
And then there are those nasty siblings, of course, who insist in interrupting us mid-sentence, just when we’re feeling so good retelling a sweet memory we thought only we could recall. Similar situations occur between spouses, who feel under pressure to match the details of their common recollections, lest not ignited another area of attrition.
But sisters and brothers, and in special, twins, have no invested interest in agreeing with the other’s narrative, since giving in to it would mean to relish their own personal history to somebody else’s narrative. So, yes, they do interrupt each other, and have no problem disagreeing about the event both lived through but have different views about it.
The fight to control the narrative is, of course, a required life skill to successfully navigate our social contracts and emotional attachments. How much of our personal story we’re willing to amend to accommodate our partners depends on the degree and quality of the involvement and bond we share in common.
Within the family structure, there’s also legacy memories, who extend back to previous generations, and are constant, and considerably, ‘enriched’ by the successive retelling of new members. Such oral narrative can incorporate details lived through by relatives but, once melded into a coherent personal story, may actually be owned by the narrator.
That’s how, in the span of a few generations, the protagonists of a particular event, and many of its details and settings, can be switched and transferred to whoever owns the narrative at that moment. And more, the person giving voice to the account may, as well, believe that it happened in his or her own personal past, and not, as it’s often the case, many years before.
LIES THAT YOUR UNCLE TOLD YOU
In the end, we spend a great deal of our days (and sometimes, of our sleeping hours) creating, improving, and retouching memories, because we need them to find our way around. Our recollections are our emotional GPS, and their accuracy is relative and depends on where we stand at any given moment.
Often, we sacrifice the physicality of personal experience in order to have a better story to tell ourselves, one that often, would be unattainable to achieve. Even that has its own set of rules, though. We wouldn’t remember flying, for instance, for that would undermine the credibility of everything about that memory. But we’re still free to embellish it as much as we’d like it.
We may be willing to compromise a few details of a memory, even if it’d tweak a bit its content, in order to satisfy someone we care about, who’d wish to also have a role to play on it. But there’s no changing in the basic assertion of the story we want to tell about ourselves. Otherwise, why would we even bother telling it?
As we saw, some find the act of memorizing something an stimulating brain exercise. As a pure intellectual endeavor, or as an innate and above-average ability to recollect, we can teach ourselves to repeat large chunks of narrative, without any emotional connection to it. And we may need to unlearn the whole process, in order to remain able to make sense of it.
But it’s where our self-perception is concerned that memories represent a crucial element of what we are, however volatile and in constant need to retelling they may be. And yes, we can cry over a memory that is essentially not ours; the emotional resonance ultimately surpasses the need for ownership or corroboration from reality.
In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the makers of the Replicants come up with a clever idea of doting them with an emotional core of personal experiences: memories. Ironically, they were not theirs but borrowed from humans and implanted in their artificial brains, to ultimately disturbing results.
The concept of encapsulating a whole human experience within an implantable chip, which for many it’s not too far in the future, is a common theme in science fiction, of course. When it gets tricky is that it poses the same paradox experienced by siblings who went through the same event: for many reasons, no one single recollection matches perfectly the other.
Since they relate to the past, even those yet to be created, memories also share the same fluidity of time: they may be happening in parallel with the present, and not at some previous date. And can be highly susceptible to being changed by mere observation.
In her clarity, Judge Judy usually tells the hapless who seek her advice (and the scorn of millions of her TV audience) that it’s better to stick to the truth, and much harder to create and maintain a version of an event, without forgetting a crucial detail.
That’s the essence of memories: we forget the details. In other words, we can record facts and build a history on what we know about a memory, but all bets are off when we introduce a second opinion.
* Originally published on August, 2012.
* Cursed Gifts