Memory is an intrinsic part of our life experience. It is critical for learning, and without memories we would have no sense of self. Understanding why some memories stick better than others, as well as accepting their fluidity, helps us reduce conflict and better appreciate just how much our memories impact our lives.
“Which of our memories are true and which are not is something we may never know. It doesn’t change who we are.”
Memories can be so vivid. Let’s say you are spending time with your sibling and reflecting on your past when suddenly a memory pops up. Even though it’s about events that occurred twenty years ago, it seems like it happened yesterday. The sounds and smells pop into your mind. You remember what you were wearing, the color of the flowers on the table. You chuckle and share your memory with your sibling. But they stare at you and say, “That’s not how I remember it at all.” What?
Memory discrepancies happen all the time, but we have a hard time accepting that our memories are rarely accurate. Because we’ve been conditioned to think of our memories like video recordings or data stored in the cloud, we assert that our rememberings are the correct ones. Anyone who remembers the situation differently must be wrong.
Memories are never an exact representation of a moment in the past. They are not copied with perfect fidelity, and they change over time. Some of our memories may not even be ours, but rather something we saw in a film or a story someone else told to us. We mix and combine memories, especially older ones, all the time. It can be hard to accept the malleable nature of memories and the fact that they are not just sitting in our brains waiting to be retrieved. In Adventures in Memory, writer Hilde Østby and neuropsychologist Ylva Østby present a fascinating journey through all aspects of memory. Their stories and investigations provide great insight into how memory works; and how our capacity for memory is an integral part of the human condition, and how a better understanding of memory helps us avoid the conflicts we create when we insist that what we remember is right.
Memory and learning
“One thing that aging doesn’t diminish is the wisdom we have accumulated over a lifetime.”
Our memories, dynamic and changing though they may be, are with us for the duration of our lives. Unless you’ve experienced brain trauma, you learn new things and store at least some of what you learn in memory.
Memory is an obvious component of learning, but we don’t often think of it that way. When we learn something new, it’s against the backdrop of what we already know. All knowledge that we pick up over the years is stored in memory. The authors suggest that “how much you know in a broad sense determines what you understand of the new things you learn.” Because it’s easier to remember something if it can hook into context you already have, then the more you know, the more a new memory can attach to. Thus, what we already know, what we remember, impacts what we learn.
The Østbys explain that the strongest memory networks are created “when we learn something truly meaningful and make an effort to understand it.” They describe someone who is passionate about diving and thus “will more easily learn new things about diving than about something she’s never been interested in before.” Because the diver already knows a lot about diving, and because she loves it and is motivated to learn more, new knowledge about diving will easily attach itself to the memory network she already has about the subject.
While studying people who seem to have amazing memories, as measured by the sheer amount they can recall with accuracy, one of the conclusions the Østbys reach is “that many people who rely on their memories don’t use mnemonic techniques, nor do they cram. They’re just passionate about what they do.” The more meaningful the topics and the more we are invested in truly learning, the higher the chances are that we will convert new information into lasting memory. Also, the more we learn, the more we will remember. There doesn’t seem to be a limit on how much we can put into memory.
How we build our narratives
The experience of being a human is inseparable from our ability to remember. You can’t build relationships without memories. You can’t prepare for the future if you don’t remember the past.
The memories we hold on to early on have a huge impact on the ones we retain as we progress through life. “When memories enter our brain,” the Østbys explain, “they attach themselves to similar memories: ones from the same environment, or that involve the same feeling, the same music, or the same significant moment in history. Memories seldom swim around without connections.” Thus, a memory is significantly more likely to stick around if it can attach itself to something. A new experience that has very little in common with the narrative we’ve constructed of ourselves is harder to retain in memory.
As we get older, our new memories tend to reinforce what we already think of ourselves. “Memory is self-serving,” the Østbys write. “Memories are linked to what concerns you, what you feel, what you want.”
Why is it so much easier to remember the details of a vacation or a fight we’ve had with our partner than the details of a physics lesson or the plot of a classic novel? “The fate of a memory is mostly determined by how much it means to us. Personal memories are important to us. They are tied to our hopes, our values, and our identities. Memories that contribute meaningfully to our personal autobiography prevail in our minds.” We need not beat ourselves up because we have a hard time remembering names or birthdays. Rather, we can accept that the triggers for the creation of a memory and its retention are related to how it speaks to the narrative we maintain about ourselves. This view of memory suggests that to better retain information, we can try to make knowing that information part of our identity. We don’t try to remember physics equations for the sake of it, but rather because in our personal narrative, we are someone who knows a lot about physics.
Memory, imagination, and fluidity
Our ability to imagine is based, in part, on our ability to remember. The connection works on two levels.
The first, the Østbys write, is that “our memories are the fuel for our imagination.” What we remember about the past informs a lot of what we can imagine about the future. Whether it’s snippets from movies we’ve seen or activities we’ve done, it’s our ability to remember the experiences we’ve had that provide the foundation for our imagination.
Second, there is a physical connection between memory and imagination. “The process that gives us vivid memories is the same as the one that we use to imagine the future.” We use the same parts of the brain when we immerse ourselves in an event from our past as we do when we create a vision for our future. Thus, one of the conclusions of Adventures in Memory is that “as far as our brains are concerned, the past and future are almost the same.” In terms of how they can feel to us, memories and the products of imagination are not that different.
The interplay between past and future, between memory and imagination, impacts the formation of memories themselves. Memory “is a living organism,” the Østbys explain, “always absorbing images, and when new elements are added, they are sewn into the original memory as seamlessly as only our imagination can do.”
One of the most important lessons from the book is to change up the analogies we use to understand memory. Memories are not like movies, exactly the same no matter how many times you watch them. Nor are they like files stored in a computer, unchanging data saved for when we might want to retrieve it. Memories, like the rest of our biology, are fluid.
“Memory is more like live theater, where there are constantly new productions of the same pieces,” the Østbys write. “Each and every one of our memories is a mix of fact and fiction. In most memories the central story is based on true events, but it’s still reconstructed every time we recall it. In these reconstructions, we fill in the gaps with probable facts. We subconsciously pick up details from a sort-of memory prop room.”
Understanding our memory more like a theater production, where the version you see in London’s West End isn’t going to be exactly the same as the one you see on Broadway, helps us let go of attaching a judgment of accuracy to what we remember. It’s okay to find out when reminiscing with friends that you have different memories of the same day. It’s also acceptable that two people will have different memories of the events leading to their divorce, or that business partners will have different memories of the terms they agreed to at the start of the partnership. The more you get used to the fluidity of your memories, the more the differences in recollections become sources of understanding instead of points of contention. What people communicate about what they remember can give you insight into their attitudes, beliefs, and values.
New memories build on the ones that are already there. The more we know, the easier it is to remember the new things we learn. But we have to be careful and recognize that our tendency is to reinforce the narrative we’ve already built. Brand new information is harder to retain, but sometimes we need to make the effort.
Finally, memories are important not only for learning and remembering but also because they form the basis of what we can imagine and create. In so many ways, we are what we remember. Accepting that our vivid memories can be very different from those who were in the same situation helps us reduce the conflict that comes with insisting that our memories must always be correct.