Seven years ago, a high school teacher of mine offhandedly told a story in class that I’ve been thinking about lately.
When she was in college, soon after she started dating the guy she’d eventually marry, they both went home to different states for the summer. Because it was a new relationship and because this was long before social media, she didn’t have a picture of him on hand.
As the summer went on, she found that while she could list facts about his appearance, like his hairstyle or the color of his eyes, she could not actually picture his face. She could remember the words she would use to describe him to others, but it was like those repeated words replaced her actual memories.
In just a couple months, how he physically looked had faded from her mind.
This story freaks me out.
I think it’s just the idea of how fragile memories are that frightens me. Of all the odd things I learned about as a psychology major, this topic is what keeps me up at night.
In an oversimplified sense, memory is your brain recreating past states of neuron activation. So, when you remember something, your brain activates the same pattern of neurons as when you learned or experienced the thing you are remembering.
Some memories are consciously encoded, some unconsciously. To recall any memory, though, means recreating that previous pattern.
Without delving too deeply into pseudo-philosophy, memory holds special importance because it relates closely to our very existence as people.
Our entire personhood, from cognition to personality, in many ways depends on memory. It’s true that some of our character results from temperament and other things you’re born with, but pretty much everything I think of as defining a “person” results from memory. Any beliefs you hold, anything you know how to do, any image you’ve seen, any relationships you’ve ever had: these all rely on memory.
So when the brain fails to remember effectively, the damage is existential. The heartbreak of conditions like Alzheimer’s is not about someone being unable to recall a date or name—it’s that parts of that person’s very existence begin to slip away.
Again, I’m not trying to get into what constitutes personhood on a metaphysical or spiritual level, I’m only talking about what it physically means for a brain to be a person.
And if you think about consciousness as repeated patterns of neurons firing, which—on a chemical level—it arguably is, then those patterns form the basis for your existence as a distinct person. Without memory, we lose connection to any moment in time besides the immediate present—which our brains can’t interpret without memory.
And this scares me. Really scares me. Because our brains are wired for forgetting. To stay cognitively focused and sane, we prioritize memories and leave the vast majority behind.
Forgetting allows you to think efficiently, to avoid ruminating on negative emotion, to look back on past experiences constructively, and much more. Without forgetting, we are trapped in the cage of an ever-present past, with equal weight given to all memories, no matter their harmfulness or mundanity.
What usually stays when we forget is pieces of information that are easy to record, easy to recall, and beneficial to our mental functioning.
So when I tell the story of breaking both my arms in 8th grade, I can remember the sequence of events, I can even remember the things people said, but I can’t at all imagine the pain I felt and I couldn’t draw the hospital room. Think about any story you tell from when you were young. For me, it’s hard to remember any details unless they’re part of how I tell it. The words that I use to share memory have slowly replaced the real thing.
So sometimes I feel like my personhood is just the things I keep telling myself and others, that I change and edit for the audience or mood—and the real memories: all the rich sounds, noises, images, feelings, and tastes of my life—are irretrievably lost.
I feel like if I forget the words to my stories, I’ll disappear. And I’m always forgetting the words. Even though I’m making new memories—learning new words, there are years of my life and people I’ve known that I can hardly recollect. The amount of my life that I can recall seems so outweighed by the things I’ve forgotten.
Maybe disappearing is just part of being.
My great-grandfather used to sit in his favorite chair on Sunday afternoons and eat a little bowl of Spanish peanuts while he read the paper. He would reach out and—without turning his eyes—take a peanut from the bowl. Slowly and surely. Maybe that’s all the comfort I need.
Studied psychology and writing, works at a design firm. Film junkie, amateur photographer. (’16)