Making Sense of Memories


We are our memory,
we are that chimerical museum of shifting shapes,
that pile of broken mirrors.

(verse from Jorge Luis Borges’s 1969 poem “Cambridge”)

It’s interesting how as time goes on, memories tend to coalesce around a specific narrative. Events come and go, and yet one’s mind eventually settles around an internally agreed truth of what “is” and “isn’t”.

These memories of the past are a combination of what are known as episodic memories and emotional memories.

For the most part these memories are never called into question, because there is often no way to recreate them in order to reassess one’s thoughts on the matter. We have the memories and they are what they are. It seems the more time that passes between the moment of memory, and the recalling of that memory, the more the mind has a way of glossing over the negative and bringing out the positive.  These emotional memories are what feed nostalgia for certain times and places in our minds.  They are what let us look back on past romantic relationships and long for the good times, even though the break-up may have been, episodically, not so nice.

Recently, I was given the closest opportunity one can get to recreating a complex episodic memory. A rare opportunity to pick through the pieces of the “…chimerical museum of shifting shapes, the pile of broken mirrors.”, and try to reassemble them into the previous image held in my head.

That opportunity was seeing the revival of a play that I originally saw four years ago. It was with the original leading characters and production – an occasion that doesn’t often happen, and probably the closest thing one can get to re-experiencing a visceral, live memory.  And yet, I felt completely different when it was over this time than when I first saw it. What had changed? Was it me, or the play?  A little of both?  It had appeared that my emotional memory of the event was not jiving with my current experience.

I had gone into the performance with all the memories of four years ago. The original opening night held so much anticipation for me as I was part of the original production team, so there was so much more personal investment in the project.  In the most recent viewing, I was merely a spectator.4170413-love-memories-with-you-normal

These emotional memories surrounding the original production are what, I think, caused me to have a different experience the second time around.  I still felt similar emotions, but they were not nearly as strong or profound – more muted. I found myself thinking more about how it wasn’t quite as good as the last time – that it was missing the magic of when it first came together. And therefore, the experience was a constant comparison to the original. It couldn’t quite seem to live up to the idolized emotional memory my mind had created.  A new memory was needed for the current me.

What I realized even more so is that I am not the person I was four years ago.  In the same vein, the person I was last week is not the person I am now. We are all constantly in flux. The play itself hadn’t changed so much as I had, and the circumstances surrounding my seeing it again.

Our memories are not merely mental connections to past events – not merely episodic, but are also the circumstances surrounding our lives at the time. The self is not a static object, carried intact through time like a log down a river. It is constantly changing and morphing, more akin to soap bubbles in a sink. For these reasons, we can never re-experience memories as they were at the time we made them. Re-watching a childhood movie as an adult will never match the memory of it one made as a child. That person is gone, and so to are the emotional states that shaped the memories.

For more interesting reading on memory, and its various forms, check out this post at Brainpickings.

I close with a quote from Luis Buñuel:

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.

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Author: Zack Hayhurst

New Yorker enthusiast, cartoon caption contest contender, book hoarder, cultural omnivore, writer

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