How good is your memory?
I’m asking by way of introduction to myself and any words I’m about to write down for you to read. You see, I know lots of people whose memory appears to be very, very good indeed. All of the women in my wife’s family seems to be possessed of amazing powers of recall: names, dates, places, political affiliations, religious leanings, real or perceived insults, they remember it all with alacrity. It’s not just the swiftness of their recall, it’s their confidence in it. I need to preface almost all of my recollections with “I think” or “Correct me if I’m wrong” (and they do). They remember faster than I can make something up, and I am very, very quick at making things up.
I’ve read up on the subject. I know the difference between short-term and long-term memory, the functions of explicit and implicit, and that it’s generally recognised that human memory isn’t all that reliable. I’ve read articles on how it can be manipulated, and how it’s possible to plant memories almost as cleverly as the film Inception (with, sadly, less Joseph Gordon-Levitt fighting in wonky skyscraper corridors). But nothing I’ve read has ever satisfactorily explained to me why so many people I know remember so much, while I remember so little.
Let me furnish you with an example. There are at least three people on Instagram and Facebook who I follow and am friends with, but about whom I can’t conjure up a single memory. Let me be perfectly clear, these are people who all added me on social media, not vice-versa. They have often dozens of friends in common with me. In one instance, they even sent me a lovely private message referencing things I almost certainly did in a place I definitely was, and I remember none of it. And these people’s lives pop up in my news feeds every day. I know the faces of their children. I see their hashtags. They are a perfect hole in my recollections, but they are a part of my daily reality now.
It is extremely tempting to imagine that this is all some elaborate ruse. These people have insinuated themselves into my life with carefully constructed identities, it’s all a long con and at some point they’ll unmask and reveal that I am the Chosen One. Soon I, too, shall be fighting in wonky skyscraper corridors. As that’s pretty unlikely, it leaves me with the upsetting admission that I have somehow edited three people out of existence who were courteous enough to remember me. I feel this is, at best, a grievous social faux pas. And this doesn’t take into account the half a dozen more people who I definitely do remember, but not exactly very much more than a name and some context.
Context is an important part of memory to me. I’m often drawing a complete blank until someone can provide me with context. We’ve all experienced that, I’m sure:
Person: “You remember Steve?”
Me: (Stares blankly)
Person: “Went out with Sally?”
Me: (Panicking as we haven’t covered Steve yet, and now Sally’s been thrown into the mix, and who the fuck is Sally?)
Person: “Saved your life when you choked on a pickle?”
Me: (Not sure if I’m remembering something or having a stroke, but definitely feeling warm, when did it get so warm in here?)
Person: “You were an usher at his wedding.”
Me: (Furrowing my brow, brow furrowing is a sure outward sign of deep thought)
Person: “He has a face.”
Me: (Ecstatic) STEVE! Of course! Steve with the face! Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?
It actually goes a little deeper than that for me. Sometimes the context I require is so ridiculously specialised that no game of 20 Questions would reliably unearth it. I often won’t remember someone – or an event, or place – unless it can be framed in a narrative or tied to some ridiculously niche piece of trivia. Hence some very easy to recall locations may only be accessible to me if you can call it The Place You Followed the Scottish Terrier To or The Place With Cannons, Whisky and Cake.
Some of my problems are undoubtedly related to alcohol. If drinking is a social disease, then the years 1998-2008 would have been a pandemic named after me. I sometimes picture memory as a series of tracks being laid in a nice, straight line, past to future. Well, due to my drinking large sections of my tracks were laid on boggy ground and have never sat straight. Others have fallen into ravines or sudden sinkholes that appeared. The point I’m clumsily metaphoring (yeah, I adverbed metaphor just like I adverbed adverb, there are no rules) is that a lot of my memories weren’t given a fair chance to get embedded. The equipment at the time was faulty.
My three anomalous friends all met me in Dundee University Students Association, and more specifically The Liar Bar (which I did not so much frequent as bivouacked in like a hostile invasion force) and this means I would have been drunk a good deal of the time. But drunk enough to erase three whole people? To paraphrase another drinker, Bernard Black, that would surely require pieces of my brain to fall away like wet cake.
In addition to – and often accompanying – the drinking, I’ve taken a fair amount of blows to the head. No stranger to a concussion am I. I have been blessed with a skull like the xenomorphs in Aliens, but the grey matter inside has often been set jostling around in there to the extent that it’s not a case of ‘has damage occurred’ but more a case of ‘you should invest in Alzheimer’s research’. I suspect this has had a deleterious effect on the more long-term aspects of my memory. I’ve possibly been punched hard enough to delete things I learned in that place where they taught me stuff good.
But the third, and most damning, conclusion I’m reached about my memory is that I may just be a little disinterested in things as they’re happening, and as a result just don’t pay enough attention. I’m a chronic daydreamer, and a lot of interactions I endure drag me out of some reverie or other (usually featuring wonky skyscraper corridor fights, which I may soon need to shorten to WSCFs for brevity). A lot of banal information is immediately filed under I Don’t Know Who That Is or I’ll Never See Them Again or Someone Else Will Take Care Of It, and that is death to memory. It means my brain is instantly dragging that new information to the Trash Can instead of saving it to the Disk. So unless you can make it affect me personally, or encase it in a humorous and recyclable anecdote, you are running the risk that I won’t recall it even just hours from now.
The part of my brain responsible for the daydreaming is also guilty of adding bells and whistles to compensate for parts I don’t remember. I can be recounting a story for the very first time, and suddenly the conversations are full of one-liners and neat comebacks that were never in the original script. I am literally polishing scenes in my life until they shine a little brighter (which, sadly, gives them a greater chance of being recalled later despite being fundamentally altered). Continuing the computer metaphor above, I keep corrupted files over good ones.
So why is this a problem?
Well, it’s not, really. Unless you consider that we only get one trip through life, and it would be nice to be able to look back and reflect on things (and be able to trust that they weren’t embellished by my amazing powers of fantasy incubation). I can paper over some of the cracks with the help of my loved ones who thankfully do remember things, and can provide enough detail to get my brain to cough up my own recollections. But I look at those three anomalies in my news feed and I think sometimes: “What else have I forgotten?” To borrow from Paul Bowles and, latterly, Brandon Lee, how many times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Well what if, like me, you can’t get the memory to the surface in the first place?
In fiction there is a device called The Unreliable Narrator, which is defined on Wikipedia as “a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised”. I have personally never heard a better description of my memory. We rely on memory to be retained for the purpose of influencing future action. I can’t trust a word that comes out of my memory’s filthy, lying mouth.
If you’re going to read on, consider yourself warned.