What are the very first memories in your life? One of my earliest memories is getting lost as a toddler. I had crossed the street, apparently, and that side was completely unfamiliar, I was terrified, disoriented. But then, out of nowhere, my Dad rescued me, he was wearing a colored polo shirt. I remember how relieved I felt. He’s gone now, but that memory connects me to my younger self, and to him.
What do I remember? Who am I? Perhaps these are two questions are really one in the same. It’s not my physical being that’s constant in the “me” throughout the years. All my atoms and molecules are daily exchanged with those of my surroundings. My skin’s surface renews every six weeks, my blood cells every hundred days or so, skeleton every three years. I’m not my job, or my home town,… though I might describe myself that way, they might change tomorrow. So what am I? More than anything it is my memories that tie me to all my yesterdays going all the way back to my childhood, to all the people I’ve know, the values I cherish, the dreams I’ve had. David Wilcox nails this link of identity and memory in The Farthest Shore
There is a rare group of individuals with super-memory ability. They can remember most of the hours of each day of their life, as I found out from Sixty Minutes last week Some enjoyed this super memory as a blessing, but some found it a burden: reliving the emotion of difficult memory, of being different from everyone else. Most of us are very choosy in the moments we remember.Check out National Geographic’s Brain Games on Memory for some fun activities and insights. But how does our brain decide which moments, which sensory inputs to archive in memory? It turns out that our memory decider, the hippocampus, is part of the Limbic system, our emotional brain. In other words, emotional content of an experience decides whether the event becomes archived. Which makes a lot of sense from a survival perspective, so we can avoid the terrifying bear in that cave down the road! What does it mean to learn or remember? Memory means strengthening connections between neurons until the pathway’s automatic and guaranteed, given the correct prompt or access.
Access: I always say I can’t remember my dreams, but if I write it down and peek when I wake up, I’ll say “oh yeah” and it comes flooding back. So both access and emotional import are needed for memory
An adorable, lovely song which illustrates how emotion and memory are linked : Why Can’t I forget
Among the most troubling aspects of emotion and memory is PTSD. An intensely emotional event is seared into memory so that a trauma is relived. Memory becomes more real than now, with the power to steal the life of the present. But sometimes normally I live in memory and day dreams.
The opposite problem of forgetting is even more devastating, from the amnesia of brain injury to the soul stealing plague of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. This disease takes away the ability to make new memories, and further, the brain tissue in which our memories are stored is progressively destroyed. We forget our self, our family, the meaning of …everything. I think it’s safe to say, we simply are our memories.
Finally, memory is wrapped up in time itself! Perhaps moments are eternal, as Einstein suggests: there simply is a fabric of space-time. But since we can no longer experience these moments, their only proof is in our memory, and they way those moments continue to impact us today. “Teach us to number our days” says the psalmist, to grow wise in heart. Perhaps archiving our days deepens their meaning, and our connections.