We remember so little even as we remember it all

I am minorly obsessed with memory. Why we remember. What we remember. How we go about retaining and recalling memories. Which of our senses most trigger memory — is it smell? Is it sound?

I am not as obsessed as I could be. Most of the books I want to read about memory are still holding their place on my “want-to-read” shelf on GoodReads. The closest I do get to studying the topic is scanning every single article Maria Popova posts on the subject on BrainPickings and examining — both critically and creatively — my own memory and others’.

Generally, when I am not worrying about the future, I’m thinking about the past.

Based on conversations with friends, I get the sense that my memory is comparatively vivid and richly detailed. I can remember incidents as far back as age four; I remember the song I slow-danced to with my first camp boyfriend. I remember when I saw Jurassic Park, with whom, and at which theater.

But while I’ve forever prided myself on possessing accurate knowledge of when I did things and how and with whom and in what season and to what soundtrack … I’m beginning to understand just how inaccurate and filled with holes my memory is even in its breadth of knowledge. Moreso, I’ve started to recognize a pattern about what I can remember and what I can’t.

For instance, I remember scene well. My visual memory is stunning. But I get lost trying to conjure up anything physical — pain or pleasure. I remember sound more than smell. I remember color more than texture.

I remember sitting in the backseat of my dad’s green fiat convertible, the top down, the interior beige, my hair blowing back as we all sang — me, my dad, and my brother — at the top of our lungs Little Honda .

First gear, it’s all right (Honda, Honda, go faster, faster)
Second gear, I’ll lean right (Honda, Honda, go faster, faster)
Third gear, hang on tight (Honda, Honda, go faster, faster)

But I can’t remember if it was cold back there or comfortably breezy. What season was it? Early summer? I can’t remember if it was when my dad had a mustache or not. I can’t remember where we were going or what I was wearing.

Likewise, I can recall many a ride shotgun in my high school boyfriend’s used light blue BMW, a hand-me-down from his uncle. I remember the dashboard and pulling a Van Morrison compilation out of a gray canvas cassette holder and pushing it into the tape deck. But I can’t recall more than a handful of kisses — even though I must have kissed him thousands of times during our 10 year on-again off-again relationship.

The list goes on. I remember an Elvis Costello concert in Maryland the summer of 1994 (Crash Test Dummies opened). I remember it because said high school boyfriend had returned from a semester abroad in Israel and this concert was our first attempt at being “just friends.” But until I Googled Elvis Costello Concert Tour 1994, I couldn’t remember a single song on the playlist that night. And when I read the playlist, I still couldn’t recall hearing any of them or cheering for them or singing along.

I remember a fight with my brother in an airport in Denver. I remember he threw a glass rootbeer bottle at me, but I can’t remember over what we disagreed.

Then there was the time I first saw my now-husband. I can picture him sitting in a conference room in the JCC in Cherry Hill, NJ. I was there with a group of 8 or 9 20-somethings to be interviewed for a position to lead a teen tour to Israel. Get this: I remember the lighting in the room. I remember where I sat at the table in comparison to my future-husband. But I don’t remember his voice that day, what he wore, or any interaction we had.

All this matters because as I track down my memories in an attempt to write memoir — really, in an attempt to understand myself and my life — I find my memories with their limited and unreliable perspective are indeed not memories at all.  I find I understand what Oliver Sacks means when he says, our memories are “not fixed or frozen … but transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.”

All this matters because it is via this patched together quiltwork of recall that we assess and reassess the fabric of our lives. Whether or not we are writing memoir.

As I continue to examine my memory and put it through the hard test of being fact-checked, I find myself re-evaluating who I am and how I got this way.

And I remember it all with a grain of salt.

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18 thoughts on “We remember so little even as we remember it all

  1. What good timing as I try and find the determination to write up a research project for uni on memory. The thing is we did the study so long ago I can remember very little of it now – oh the irony :). Grt article Jen

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  2. I’ve got holes all over the place with my memory, as you know. I can barely remember what most people remember about MY life. Though I’m not so concerned about it. I actually think it could be helpful at times, especially in relationships. Love reading your stuff. Miss you!

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    • There are certainly times I wonder if my memory is a curse as it is too vivid sometimes, as you know, for me to keep my feet planted in the present.

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  3. Funny. I remember what makes up the holes in your memories which concern me but don’t remember what impressed you.
    We each remember, it seems, what either impresses us the most or makes us happiest. We save in our memory what part we liked the best or what caused us the most fear.
    In The Denver airport, I remember having half an hour till boarding and searching the whole concourse before finding you in a chatchke store.

    Memories are a product of happiness or sadness. Also a method our mind has to keep us happy when we are sad.

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    • I definitely agree that our memory serves this purpose of giving our lives meaning when we feel they are meaningless. This is an area I’m particularly curious about. How our memory perhaps serves as a survival mechanism

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  4. Yes, the first slow dance at camp, Jurassic Park, and early childhood memories. As usual, I know what you mean. But maybe it’s ok if we remember things differently than they were, or if we fill in the holes. Because it’s all about understanding ourselves and where we come from and our experiences have all melded together to colour our perception of the events and people from our past. So there is still something in the memories, accurate or not, about who we are. They are still relevant and revealing.

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