On Memories

Memories are strange, for lack of a better term. Sure, there are plenty of terms that describe aspects of our memory, but fallible is one of the more accurate ones, that’s why a witness’s recollection is so easy to dismiss in court. Memory is also incredibly fickle, being subject to change at a moment’s notice. In this dynamic respect, memory is likely the least helpful of all our cognitive functions, except the part of your brain that compels you to constantly overthink every small detail of something, that part can fuck right off. I’m sure you’re eternally grateful to your memory when you remember the correct answer on a test, followed by cursing it for not recalling the answer to the next question.

The mind is constantly changing memories, old or new. Your brain starts to change your memories as soon as your done experiencing the event, then the next time you remember the same memory, you’re remembering the recollection, not the original experience. Like a mental game of telephone, each time you remember something that memory is altered slightly. We imbue our memories with more meaning and significance than they had in the moment, reframing them from different positions, adding/subtracting details, changing the setting, inferring information we didn’t previously have access to. In short, we dramatize the moments in our lives as though they were scenes from a movie, continuously remaking this one film throughout our entire lives. A childhood memory isn’t reflected upon at 20 the same way it is at 70. Our brains are directors that spend their whole life reworking and editing their magnum opus, like they’re never satisfied with the reality, feeling the need to inject story elements where there are none.

There are some memories that stick with you as if they’re permanently etched on to the inside of your skull. The memory equivalent of the cave paintings of Lascaux. I’m unsure if these memories stick with me because they altered the course of my life in some way, or I remember them because they resonated with who I was. Maybe these memories were just particularly traumatic or large in the course of my life and have no special significance.

I remember a fishing trip I took with my father one time. We caught a fish but instead of hooking it through the cheek, the fish had swallowed the hook and it got lodged in its throat (or whatever the fish equivalent of a throat is). I don’t remember who caught the fish, but I think it was me. We tried for several minutes to remove the hook, but eventually, we realized we had to give up on it and threw it back. The fish flopped around for a few minutes before finally dying. I was completely mesmerized, I watched it struggle until it laid still, side-ways and wide-eyed. It may be cliché, and hypocritical, to imbue this moment with meaning, given what I wrote earlier, but I think this moment stands out in my memory as the moment I recognized the fragility of life. A single moment of no pomp or grandeur could mean the death of any life. That moment could be a single second or an eternity, with the only guarantee of death being no guarantee in how it happens.

Another moment sticks out in my mind as one of my more prominent memories, the moment I found out my brother had been in a car crash. I remember being in class, but I don’t remember what the teacher was talking about, who was there, or what the classroom looked like, I just remember that I was there. I don’t believe people when they say they can recall small details about a scene right before a big moment happened. I already mentioned how the brain creates small details to add life to a scene, but it’s also unlikely people recall these small details because they weren’t paying special attention to them, and it’s a strong possibility that whatever happened next overshadows all other details of that day.

I know I was called to the office, which I was probably happy about. Understand that at that moment I knew nothing about my brother’s wellbeing, so any kid hearing they were being checked out, especially for no discernable reason (i.e. doctor’s appointment, etc.) would probably be ecstatic. I packed up my things, probably beaming at the idea of going home early (I never cared for school), and made my way down the hall. The school office was around the right-hand corner of the hall (funny how I remember that one aesthetic detail), so my mother was waiting for me at the end of the hall. As I got closer I was unnerved to see she was crying. When I got to the end of the hall my mother told me what happened.

I remember this scene very differently. What I’ve told you so far was a deduction of what must have happened according to anecdotal pieces of my memory, and my knowledge of my past self, things that I can know with some degree of certainty are true. I remember smiling, followed by that smile disappearing into a worried expression as soon as I saw my mother crying, then running towards here in a panic. Followed by several smaller events I’m sure adds more drama to the scene. Now I have the luxury of understanding that moment in full context, thus the ability to imbue it with more significance than it may have warranted at the time. Perhaps that’s the point of reflection, to give understanding and importance to moments that seem frivolous in the moment. After all, didn’t these moments have profound effects on me, but I was unable to fully interpret it as such then and there? You can’t say definitively if reflecting on memories is good or bad, I think it’s more dependent on the types of changes you make. What details did you add? Are those details based in any truth? Did something actually happen like you remember it? Are you adding overtly biased details? But when you start getting this intricate and suspicious of which parts of your memory are true or false, it’s best to go ahead and close this line of thought before driving yourself crazy with doubts about your experiences.

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