I’ve got what I’d call a crappy long-term memory.
My earliest memory is from kindergarten. All my classmates were stretched out on their cots in the dark for naptime. I stayed awake because my mother was on her way to pick me up. We were going to get my first pair of glasses. My mom opened the classroom door and the teacher escorted me outside, whispering in her best conspiratorial I’m-treating-you-like-an-adult-I-swear tone: “Don’t come back with spectacles.”
I was horrified. I feared spectacles the entire way to the ophthalmologist’s office. Spectacles sounded tiny and evil. They sounded like something the other kids in your class laughed at you for wearing when they woke up from their naps, spectacle-free, taunting you with their perfect vision that wouldn’t start to degrade until fourth or fifth grade.
I picked out purple plastic frames that took up three-quarters of my face. They were enormous. They couldn’t be spectacles.
But my point is: Five is pretty late for your first memory. Every so often people give me a hard time about this.
Once I read something vaguely scientific about long-term memory being a reminiscence of the last time you remembered an incident, rather than a visceral remembrance of the incident itself. This article I read—or did I make it up?—referenced the activation of certain receptors in the brain when a memory was retrieved that somehow made its point. I started invoking this idea in my defense, saying that I just didn’t bother to remember things when they were near, when I could’ve formed that memory of remembering. Now the memories are too far away—since I never retrieved them, my brain made space for other things and disposed of them.
I don’t think this idea about memory is provable one way or the other, but I like the way it feels.
Conventional wisdom holds that memory is like a serial recording device like a computer diskette. In reality, memory is dynamic—not static—like a paper on which new texts (or new versions of the same text) will be continuously recorded, thanks to the power of posterior information. (In a remarkable insight, the nineteenth-century Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire compared our memory to a palimpsest, a type of parchment on which old texts can be erased and new ones written over them.) Memory is more of a self-serving dynamic revision machine: you remember the last time you remembered the event and, without realizing it, change the story at every subsequent remembrance.
So we pull memories along causative lines, revising them involuntarily and unconsciously. We continuously renarrate past events in the light of what appears to make what we think of as logical sense after these events occur.
By a process called reverberation, a memory corresponds to the strengthening of connections from an increase of brain activity in a given sector of the brain—the more activity, the stronger the memory. While we believe that memory is fixed, constant, and connected, all this is very far from truth. What makes sense according to information obtained subsequently will be remembered more vividly. We invent some of our memories—a sore point in courts of law since it has been shown that plenty of people have invented child-abuse theories by dint of listening to theories.
A noisy skeptic holding something so close to my belief feels validating somehow.
Also, The Black Swan is great. You should read it. With your spectacles on.