How We Remember

December 6th, 2004 · 9 Comments · Writing

The other day, Murray and I were talking about how we store information in our respective memories — one of those fascinating conversations where you end up learning a thing or two about how you work. Murray says that he has to think through his day, and he sorts through all the events and conversations and decides which to keep and which to ditch. Of the memories he keeps, he then has to link those events to related memories in his memory storage and retrieval system, or MSRS (this is my understanding of what he said).

I’m a little different, but I also have to sort through my day and process all the information. I usually do this before falling asleep. But I don’t ditch anything; instead, I pack it down really tight, like a compression file. Just like a compressed file, I often find that when I retrieve that information at a later date, I’ve lost a lot of the detail in the memory. But in true Texas tall-tale-teller fashion, I tend to make up brand-new detail that’s probably much more interesting than the original version.

My memories tend to be reconstituted ones, with more flavor than the real events. Murray’s are either perfectly factual and exact, or they’re completely non-existent. How do you store your memories?

Category: Writing

9 Comments so far ↓

  • Tibbie

    Methods of remembering change over time. In my twenties, I remembered so much detail that people marveled at my ability to recall conversations, books I’d read, or lectures I’d heard verbatim. In my thirties, I began to use small lists to help me recall the mundane details of daily living, still able to remember the significant with a great measure of accuracy. In my forties,
    I needed to augment my lists with methods of linking common threads to jog the noggin. Now in my fifties, I can never remember where I put the paper to make a list, or for that matter what I was going to write on the list. I have come to the conclusion that my brain has reached its capacity to store anymore information. IT IS ON OVERLOAD! If I had only used Murray’s method “MSRS” which includes deleting then I might have been able to remember that I had an 8:15 meeting this morning, which I forgot with people whose names escape me and that I was supposed to have taken Chris and that boy with black hair to the gym at 3:15 this afternoon.

  • feets

    I’ve never even thought of purposefully trying to remember any of my thoughts (or events that I’ve experienced) on a daily basis. However, I’m known to have a pretty good memory. I guess I’m lucky that my MSRS works sufficiently in autopilot mode…
    (On the other hand, I find it easier to make a grocery list before I head to the store. If I’m going to work on a complicated project, I’ll usually make a list of tasks and organize them appropriately.)

  • Micah

    How do I store my memories? Not nearly as methodically as you guys! 🙂 I have a pretty good memory, though, but its reliability has noticeably begun to decay. My extremely-short-term memory has a tendency to completely crap out on me in the most frustrating ways. For instance, just last night I put some garlic bread in the oven only to immediately completely forget about it until I was summoned back into the kitchen by the smell of smoke!

  • Michael

    I tend to process memories in different ways. If it’s factual or trivial (such as, what year did this or that film come out?) then I remember it as if I am pulling up a file. If it’s an experience, I tend to remember it in a more impressionistic manner, assembling various images and then putting them together. In this way, I probably never remember the experience in its entire chronological structure; it’s more of a patchwork memory.
    Oddly enough, and as corny as it might seem, your post reminded me of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, which suggests that an essential part of being human is having memories. When several replicants (androids) strive to become more human, they do it in several ways, not the least of which is trying to have memories: that’s why the android Leon harbors a bunch of photographs and why lead replicant Roy Batty, near the end, recounts things he’s remembered. “All those moments, lost in time,” as he says.

  • Megan

    One of the things Murray and I both tend to do is to separate out events/conversations/images/etc from the more mundane details of life. I’m actually scary-good at remembering things like garlic-bread-in-the-oven or whether we’ve paid the electric bill or how to get to a gallery we haven’t been to in ages, although that does seem to be affected by stress and “overload” (as my mom put it). Murray is more likely to forget those details (lucky he’s got me to rescue the baking bread).
    Michael, the Blade Runner connection is an apt one. Memory does seem to be one of the definers of humanity. My cat, for example, has some evidence of memory — when she visits Texas with us, she seems to return to her favorite spots from the last time she was there, over a year ago.
    But I doubt she remembers the day we brought her home as a kitten, how she had fleas, and we gave her a bath in the sink, and she was so wet and tiny and unhappy. She might remember being wet and unhappy and in the sink, but she probably couldn’t place it in context as “the day I moved in with Meg and Murray, in April 2001.”
    Likewise, the browser on my computer seems to remember my name and address from the last time I plugged it into some online shopping cart, but I doubt IT remembers the day I brought it home from the Apple store. No fleas, and no bath, that time.
    Does memory tie significantly into identity and a sense of self, as suggested in Blade Runner? What happens as memory begins to deteriorate as we age? Does that affect that person’s sense of self? Do you think we have an infinite capacity for memory? Do you think that if we just took a ginseng biloba or processed info the right way or practiced memorization, we could hang on to our memories for the duration of our lives?
    Memory does seem to be the ultimate ephemera, and as we have moved into a culture that ceases to value collective memory, that in fact seems to distrust collective memory, memory seems to have become each person’s individual responsibility, with a lifespan that is often even shorter than our own.

  • Megan

    Speaking of nonexistent memories… Murray called me today in a panic. It seems that way back when I scheduled our holiday trip, and I asked him to coordinate times with me, he forgot completely about something that he is absolutely required to attend every semester, no excuses: graduation.
    We’ve had to rescramble a bit today, make new plans, etc. It all worked out just fine, but all this despite me double-checking the dates with him, several times, in fact.

  • Michael

    You’ve offered some great thoughts and great questions about the nature of memory. I think the distinction between human memory and your cat’s memory is intriguing and also quite right. The main difference between human and non-human memory (and I believe Blade Runner suggests this) is the self-conscious emotional meaning that memory has for humans, and how memory is indeed a construct for identity. I think this is why Leon is so forlorn when he can’t get his photos (Roy Batty asks him something to the effect of: “what’s wrong? Do you miss your precious photos?” — I don’t recall the exact dialogue, but it’s close to that; they’re trying to become human, so they are learning what it’s like to remember).
    In my own life, I find that I use memory for these purposes (creating identity) and for providing an emotional context for who I am. And I do this as much with sad or melancholy memories as I do with happy ones; I can’t experience lost loved ones, for example, without memory. Though I can’t prove it, I suspect that humans have memories that are chronologically more extensive than those of non-humans, so our sense of self arises in part from our sense of who we are in time. And, of course, this is an evolutionary process: our past experiences define us, but our recollection of them sometimes changes as those experiences retreat further into the past.
    Which leads me to think that we don’t have an unlimited capacity for memory, or that our memories do in fact deteriorate or change as we age. It’s a tough thing. I hope that some of the memories I have will stay just as they are forever, and perhaps some will, but I get a bit scared thinking of what life will be like when those memories fade. I do think, though, that practicing memorization helps — I believe that some of my recollections have remained fairly strong because I’ve made a conscious effort to recall them on a somewhat regular basis.
    To take it further than this: there’s a Japanese film by Hirokazu Koreeda (sometimes spelled “Kore-eda”) called After Life. It’s about a group of “case workers” who work in a way station between life and eternity. When people die, these case workers consult with them and give them three days to select only one memory that they can take into eternity. At first, it seems like an impossible, even awful, choice; how can you select just one? And if you had to, which one would it be? But I think the story underscores just how important our memories are in defining who we are. I’ve actually asked myself which memory would I choose?

  • Zanne

    My long-term memory is a steel trap. I remember childhood things, teenage haunts, etc with amazing detail. However, I have a sloppy short-term memory, and Mario will tell anyone that I have a tendency to “live inside my head” and remember things that haven’t actually happened. Nothing major; what that means is, I’ll think “Oh, I’ve heard this song before, its from a movie I like” and then later I’ll hear it again and ask Mario, “Hey, isn’t this that song I was talking about?” and he’ll have absolutely no idea what I mean.

  • Allie

    I think memory is very significant to indentity. My own personal philosophy is that much of what we think of as the essence of self, our character and personality is based on the complex relation and understanding that we have to our own “biography”- our memories.
    Very recently I began a meditative activity, maybe similar to what you have already described, that is meant to both enhance short term memory and force self-contemplation. Before falling asleep I replay my day like a movie, trying to recall the most minute details such as the hair color of the person from whom I bought groceries, etc. It has actually been a pretty amazing little experiment. I am constantly surprised by what I remember and why it may be significant for me personally. I have also started having very vivid dreams every single night that can be recalled in perfect detail because I am forcing my brain to both seek what needs to be worked through and to practice how to recall information. Plus, it always puts me to sleep without the requistite tossing and turning. Pretty cool little brain workout.

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