Monday October 1, 2012
The stuff of memories
BUT THEN AGAIN
By MARY SCHNEIDER
Ever noticed how emotions play a key role in memory retention?
I RECENTLY read about a young man in England who has hyperthymesia, or a highly superior autobiographical memory, as it’s more commonly known. He remembers simply everything – the details of everyday life that most of us tend to forget.
If you ask him what he had for dinner on, say, July 28, 2009, he’ll be able to tell you. Not only that, he’ll tell you what the weather was like that day, what he was wearing, what he watched on TV and entire conversations that he had.
I can’t remember what I had for dinner a week ago, never mind three years ago. Sure, I can remember what I had for dinner on my birthday last month, but I can’t remember what I had to eat to celebrate last year’s birthday.
And quite frankly, who gives a toss?
I guess if a naked man had jumped out of a giant birthday cake that had been wheeled to the side of my table as I celebrated last year, I would probably remember it now. However, 10 years from now, even though I might still remember the incident, I might just get the years mixed up.
“Was that my 53rd or my 52nd birthday?” I might ask my ageing partner. To which he might respond, “I remember that, but it wasn’t your birthday. It was your sister’s.”
“Your memory’s getting really bad,” I might say. “Let me have a look at the photographs we took that night.”
“We didn’t take any photographs.”
“Because I forgot to bring the camera.”
“It was my birthday and you forgot to bring the camera? How could you?”
“But it wasn’t your birthday. It was your sister’s birthday.”
Like most people, I remember extreme events with great clarity. Moments when I was extremely embarrassed, or happy, or sad, or confused tend to stay in my memory, while the mundane, nothing-out-of-the-ordinary stuff just disappears after a while.
I can still remember a game of Charades I played with two friends when I was 14, with my bra stuffed full of tissue paper.
You see, I was a bit of a late developer, and while I was waiting for my breasts to make an appearance, I liked to give the impression of fullness with the aid of tissues, or toilet paper, or a couple of socks – whatever was at hand when I was getting dressed.
Anyway, as I was acting out my charade word, with my arms flailing like a windmill, a piece of tissue worked its way out of my bra and fell from beneath my untethered blouse onto the floor.
I was mortified. I could already see the years of ridicule and shame stretching out in front of me. So I did the only thing I could under the circumstances. I bent down, picked up the offending piece of tissue, and pretended to blow my nose, extremely loudly. Then I lifted my blouse slightly, tucked the tissue into the waistband of my skirt and resumed flailing my arms.
I was, of course, extremely grateful that I had not stuffed something else into my bra that day.
Because I’m sure I would never have got away with blowing my nose on, say, an ankle sock that had plopped out of my blouse, without having to make up a story about austerity measures in my house and how my mother was making me use an old sock instead of a handkerchief.
I can still remember every detail of that moment, simply because I was acutely embarrassed.
I don’t remember what I did immediately after the game of Charades was over, or what I had for dinner, or what the weather was like, or the colour of the curtains in my living room.
But I will always remember the hot prickly sensation on my scalp, my heart racing, and the way my hands shook when I picked up that tissue.
Of course, I have experienced other embarrassing moments since then, but many of them are either fading from my memory or are simply gone forever. I would hate to have an autobiographical memory and remember every detail of every faux pas and public gaffe I have committed over the years. The clamouring inside my head would drive me insane.
“But what about the good times?” I can hear some of you saying just about now. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could remember all our happy occasions? Or details of relatives who are long gone?”
I think if something is worth remembering, you will remember it. For example, I’ll never forget my son being born and the first time I saw his face, or the birth of his sister two years later, or the first time I went to the cinema (Peter Pan was showing), or my first day at college, or my first date, or that day more than 15 years ago when I was offered a weekly column with The Star newspaper ...
As for some of the other stuff, I’m sure there are photographs somewhere.
Now, if only I can remember where I put them.