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November 14, 2010

In the detritus of our minds lurk our memories.  The longer we live, the more memories we create.  Some things we have lived through will be tossed away (‘forgotten memories’), others will get pushed to the recesses of our minds (‘vague memories’), and still others will rise to the surface at the most unexpected moments (‘flashbulb memories’).  So what determines which memories stay with us and which ones are lost to time?

Ebbinghaus Forgetting CurgeIn 1885 Hermann Ebbinghaus created a formula (called the ‘Forgetting Curve’) showing the degradation of memory:  R=e(-t/S) where R is memory retention, S is the relative strength of memory, and t is time.  Basically, it suggests that memory is impacted both by the passage of time and the importance of the event you are trying to remember.  Researchers have attempted to prove this theory by having subjects write about an important event immediately after it occurs. Six months later, they ask them to write about the event again; this process is repeated at the three year mark.  When the documents are compared, most subjects find that their ‘memory’ of the event has changed significantly (or even completely) over the intervening years.  (You can try this yourself; you don’t have to wait three years – oftentimes your memory of an event will change radically over as little as three hours, three days, or three weeks!) 

Our memories are influenced by any number of internal and external stimuli (that’s why any two people relating the same event will generally have completely different versions of what happened, and those will change even more if they listen to someone else’s account of what occured).  It has been suggested that if you really want to ‘capture’ an important event, videotaping, photographing and journaling at the time the event is taking place are all good ideas (even then, when you look back on them later, you’ll probably say ‘I don’t remember that!’  Just take a glance through your high school yearbook if you don’t believe me!)

Memory SynapsesThe CBC series DocZone recently featured a one-hour show called “Where Did I Leave My Memory?”. The show suggests that in order to ‘remember’ something, your brain’s synapses have to re-fire in exactly the same order as when the original event/activity took place.  This would suggest that when we can’t remember something, it’s because our brains have re-wired themselves in such a way that the pattern can’t repeat the necessary sequences to recall it. (NOTE: some scientists insist memories are stored in the hippocampus; others suggest they are stored in neurotransmitters – the synaptic connections between neurons in our brains – and that the strength of individual synapses varies widely.  This would suggest that strong connections = strong memories and weak connections = weak memories.)

Of course, we also have to consider the fact that as we age, we are amassing more ‘memories’ (and with the volume of information bombarding us every day, its surprising the brain can absorb – never mind remember – even a tiny percent of what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste).  And like the accumulations of ‘junk’ in the closets and drawers of our homes, we can only make room for ‘new stuff’ by getting rid of (or relocating) ‘old stuff’ – including memories.  But what stays and what goes?   How do our minds ‘houseclean’ our memories?

Expo 67 in MontrealIn 1967, my family (mother, father, sister, brother) travelled to Montreal for Expo ’67.  My father was in charge of a conference there that summer and he arranged for us to meet him there.  I remember that we stayed in a university residence, that I slept on a roll-out cot next to an old wooden desk in a pair of white silk pyjamas with red ‘frog’ closures that I’d gotten for my birthday the year before.  I remember that the little white flowers on my blue pantsuit (and the white shoelaces in my running shoes) glowed eerily in the dark on a ride at LaRonde (it was my first experience with black light). But that’s pretty much it.

I do NOT recall how we got to Montreal from Oakville (I know we didn’t fly, and my mother didn’t drive).  I can’t dredge up anything about the other rides or any of the exhibits at Expo.  I don’t remember where anyone else slept.  I have no idea how long we were there.  I do have several photographs and postcards which I have studied – and I even watched a one-hour TV special about Expo ’67 several years ago – but … I remember nothing else about the trip!  Interestingly enough, my sister has an equal ‘blank spot’ when it comes to this unusual-and-major- event-for-our-family (we’d never gone anywhere significant together – either before or after that summer).  We assume we took the train, we assume we all stayed in the same place together, and we assume we went to most of the exhibits … but we don’t / can’t remember it!

On the other hand, the simplest of things can bring back memories of what would seem to be insignificant events. The other day I was driving through the town where I grew up and I passed a mall in the west end – one of only two (then not-enclosed) shopping centres that existed during my ‘formative’ years.  For a single startling instant I saw (or rather felt) myself sitting on the back seat of the old Cross Town bus, bumping my way towards the mall.  The feeling was so intense it brought tears to my eyes!  Why? I must have taken that bus dozens of times (it cost a dime to go from one end of town to the other) and neither the trip – nor the mall itself – held any kind of special significance for me. Yet there it was – a flash of memory that felt absolutely real! And it happened for no apparent reason!

My fondest memories are of the summers we spent at a little rented cottage on Lake Ontario. It was only about a half hour drive from our house, but for five summers (between the time I was five and ten) it was our ‘home away from home’ during July and August.  There was no running water (and, therefore, no bathroom), partitions (not full walls) between the two bedrooms and the living space, ancient appliances, a screened-in porch (where my sister and I would often camp out in our sleeping bags on two creaky old spring beds), and an empty lot we called ‘the woods’ just beyond the backyard, where we were allowed to play.  I loved it there!  In the summer, on one of the streets where I walk regularly, there is a small weed-infested lot that sends out a scent exactly like that of ‘the woods’ from those childhood summers.  Smell is apparently the strongest sense we have and I have to say that’s true – when I get a whiff of whatever plant it is that I smell when I walk past that lot, I am eight years old and right back in the woods at the cottage!

When my boys were very young, I recall scoffing when people told me I should ‘remember these precious moments’.  It was as if they were warning me that I would forget the pivotal moments in my children’s lives!  Ha, I thought.  That’s never going to happen!  Of course, they were eventually proven right.  Soon enough, the activities, events, and special moments of life became all jumbled up and I have thirty years of things my kids did jammed inside my head like dozens of mismatched socks in a drawer – I can’t match up the ‘who’ with the ‘did or said what’ and the ‘when’. (And don’t get me started on all the arts and crafts items I saved but didn’t label with the responsible child’s name because I would ‘never forget’ who made them for me!)

Not long ago, after my father passed away, each of the children and grandchildren was asked to share a memory of him at a family service.  I was surprised by the stories my boys told.  They recalled things I had long forgotten – or perhaps had not paid a lot of attention to at the time (‘It’s surprising how much of memory is built around things unnoticed at the time’ … Barbara Kingsolver).  I often wonder how much of their early lives they (will) remember.  I am sure some things will fade over time; hopefully others (like all those trips to DisneyWorld) will remain strong memories that they will always hold dear.

It has been said that ‘memory is fleeting’.  Strong memories (for the most part) are a gift – recalled to teach us something about ourselves.  Forgotten memories – perhaps – disappear for a reason. Sudden, unexplained memories (usually brought about by a strong trigger sense – a smell, a sound, a photograph) remind us where we have come from (and, maybe, where we’re going).

I imagine some day scientists will find the ‘key’ to memory storage and retrieval, and people will be able to ‘interface’ with their brains to upload, download, or delete things they want to remember (or forget).  However, I will remain content to reminisce about what I can recall, linger over photos and journals of events long forgotten, and make room for all the new memories I’m creating on … the other side of 55.

USB Brain Interface

Is This What's Ahead in Memory Storage?

One Comment
  1. Lori permalink
    November 14, 2010 7:13 pm

    Oh…how true! What a great article. This subject has come up many times and I have often thought that I’ve had “mini-strokes” in my brain as at times I look at my sister in amazement when she recounts a story about the two of us and I can’t recall a single thing about it. Glad to know I’m not an isolated case….nor is it just attributed to age 🙂

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