My husband and I were recently having a conversation with someone about something that happened a couple of years ago, and he was surprised by the details I still recalled about it. “I don’t know how you remember this stuff so well,” he said.
I think my memory has been better than his for as long as we’ve known each other, and since his seizure episode last spring, that seems to be even more true. It’s interesting, given that I’m the one who worries about Alzheimer’s… I have far from perfect recall of many everyday, ordinary things, but sometimes I’m just as surprised by the things that do stick in my head. (But if you really want to be amazed by what sticks in someone’s head, read about this woman.)
During a recent Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast discussion about memoir, one of the panelists talked about the link between memory and emotion. We’re more likely to form strong memories around events associated with strong emotions, which makes them highly subjective. But even those memories may be lacking in strong details, and may be reconstructed into narrative using some of the devices of fiction. (For that reason, we may want to reconsider chastising some memoirists for inaccuracy.) I wonder if that’s one reason why memories of childhood sometimes seem so clear; it’s a time when our emotions are more primary and much closer to the surface.
It’s also a time when our brains are much less full of stuff, which is why adults need to rely on documentation–notes to self and to-do lists and smartphones and journals.
I started this blog in order to create a record of my reading–to remember what I read, when I read it, what it was about, and what I thought about it. Over the course of nearly five years and more than 1600 posts, it’s evolved into a record of many other pastimes and events and thoughts–a tangible, searchable memory. There are definite advantages to having a place where you can just look it up.
And when I know that I’m going to be documenting something, I find myself more attentive to it in the moment as well, so that I’ll be able to record those facts and feelings and impressions. It may be that actively creating memories is actually good exercise for the brain, and perhaps that will help me manage some of those Alzheimer’s worries. But I should work on exercising it even more; I’ve noticed that when I’ve decided not to blog about something, I’ll sometimes catch myself drifting through it, not fully tuned in. That’s a problem–experiences that aren’t blogged about are no less valid than experiences that are (although they may be less momentous).
Granted, we all can use some mental downtime now and then, but we need mental discipline too. My mother-in-law makes a point of doing several crossword puzzles every day as her mental exercise, and I respect that, but I think that just spending more of our time paying attention might be even more valuable. (That might even help with the super-short-term memory “Now what did I come in here for anyway?” thing…) There’s something to the whole “in the moment,” mindful-living thing; when I’ve focused more on the moment, I find I remember it better long after it’s over. And writing it down helps me remember it even more.