In Search of Lost Time
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Ever have one of those “life moments”? A time that feels so important, so critical to who you are and how you see the world, that it is like you will never forget a single thing about it? Like how we all remember where we were on 9/11 or the day we got married or the birth of our kids.
A moment frozen in time, and frozen in our memory.
Curiously, one of the moments that feels seared in my memory is the moment my neurologist told me that, given the nature of the damage that my brain had received over my life, I was almost assured of eventual memory impairment.
I remember almost every detail from that meeting. I remember the awful fluorescent lights in the VA hospital. I remember the resident taking notes, refusing to make eye contact as I got the diagnosis. I remember the serious look on my doctor’s normally convivial face. I remember his blue shirt. And I remember his words. That I was “virtually assured” of having an early cognitive decline. That it could come at literally any time. That the rate of progression could be rapid or could be slow, but it would happen. That there would be no warning.
At some point, I was most likely going to lose the ability to meaningfully process new memories. And the ones that I had would disappear at an uneven rate. And eventually the brain injury that caused this decline would contribute to my death.
I was given, in essence, a terminal diagnosis. With no timeline. And a decline that could move in slow motion, or perhaps impossibly fast. “It could happen when you are 85,” the doctor said, “or it could happen tomorrow.” “It might not happen at all,” I pointed out, helpfully. “I am 95% sure it will, Mr. Hall,” he said.
And with that, the impending loss of my memory became, ironically, a core memory.
Memory is a funny thing. We often assume (and are culturally taught) that memory is something akin to a video camera. We take in all of the information in the frame and then store it on a hard disk in our brain ready for retrieval. Sure, we are limited to what we see in our frame, but what is in the frame is accurate and accessible.
Only. It’s not. At all.
In fact our memory is less video camera and more impressionist painting. We may get something of the contours of a thing, and may capture our impression of the thing and the feelings generated by it, but we do not have anything like an accurate perception of objective truth in our recollection.
As the kids say these days, memory is less about recollection and more about vibes.
Take the example of 9/11. A few days after the attacks, psychologist Karen Mitchell interviewed dozens of people about how they learned of the attacks and asked them to describe their feelings about the attacks. Mitchell also asked respondents to rate their confidence that their responses reflected accurately what had really happened. She interviewed the same people, asking the same questions, a year later, then again at years 3 and 10. Her goal was to test the consistency of our memory (and our confidence in our memory) over time.
A year later, only about 63% of the responses matched the initial responses of the first few days. Interestingly, however, the respondents confidence in their response - their belief that they were remembering things accurately - skyrocketed. By year 3 the accuracy of recollection had gone down a bit more (around 60%), and then stayed at roughly the same level by year 10. The subject’s confidence in their memories, however, never wavered. After the first year it stayed high. It seemed like people formed their “memory” of what happened by the end of the first year, and stuck with that perception basically from that point on. And they believed that perception to be an accurate reflection of what happened that day, even though it was only about 60% accurate.
It takes us a while (a year or so) to paint our impressionist masterpiece of major life events. Then, when it is done, we often only give it minor touch ups. And we believe it to be an accurate reflection of the what happened, even though it is merely an impression of what happened.
One of the things my therapist says all the time is that your brain doesn’t know the difference between a lie and the truth. It only knows what you tell it. I agree with that. To a point.
I mean, I absolutely believe that the stories we tell ourselves matter. The stories we tell ourselves help shape our memory and shape our perception of the world. If we tell ourselves that Monday is going to suck, that every Monday sucks, and that every Monday will always suck, then I am not sure that we can be terribly surprised when our Monday turns out to be less than pleasant.
The challenge for me is that so many of my memories feel like more than just a story that I am telling myself. They seem powerful, revelatory. And they can seem uncontrollable, ungovernable. When I am struggling with intrusive thoughts and memories of war and trauma, I can’t control when the flashbacks come. They come when they come. If just telling myself a new story would make it stop, I would be William fucking Shakespeare. The memories come when they come.
I am just grateful that it happens less and less.
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.
The scene above is from Marcel Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past. This interlude with the madeline leads the narrator to recover all sorts of memories which, in turn, inform the 7 volume (!) magnum opus by Proust. 7 volumes. All from a cookie dipped in tea.
The Pixar movie Ratatouille has a similar scene of taste involuntarily awakening memory:
Is memory merely a story we tell ourselves? Or is it an involuntary response to stimuli? Is it a recording or an impression? Is it all these things? Or none of them? Is there a way to improve it or hold onto it or cure it?
On my journey of healing one of the biggest things I have had to learn is how to forgive. Forgiveness is easier said than done (and is honestly a whole separate essay), mainly because it is hard to pin down exactly what forgiveness means and what it looks like. I want to forgive the people who abused me as a kid, but at the same time I don’t want to let go of the ability to say that what happened was wrong. I don’t want forgiveness to mean forgetting what happened, or letting those who had a hand in it avoid accountability. It’s hard to figure it all out. How do you square that circle? How do you find a way forward?
Ultimately I realized that forgiveness is about letting go of the hope of having a better past. It means letting go of the hope of memory. I can not change what happened to me. I have accepted that trauma is part of my story. And, at the same time, trauma is NOT my identity. We are all more than an accumulation of the bad things that happen to us. I used to hope all the time that my relationship with my mother would be “normal.” It wasn’t. It never could be. True forgiveness meant letting go of the hope of memory, and just letting things be what they were.
When the doctor told me I would one day lose my memory it felt like a death sentence. Increasingly, I realize that it was actually a call to be in the present moment, to let go of the hope that the past might be different or that the future might be controlled. Neither of those things will happen. They can’t happen. The past is past, the future is just a promise. All that we truly have is the exact moment in which we find ourselves.
For all the thinking I have done about it, I still don’t know what memory is or how it works.
One day in the future - when I am well into the clutches of dementia - I may take a bite of chicken fried steak, and be transported back to the linoleum kitchen in Alexander, Texas, standing at my grandmother’s side as she explains when to flip the steak so it is golden brown on both sides, letting me sneak a bite as soon as it comes out of the skillet, so hot that it burns my tongue a little, the pain more than made up for by the taste and the love and the connection. I may have my own madeline, my own ratatouille.
Or things around me may slowly fade, and my world may get smaller each day.
Or my doctor could be wrong and nothing may happen at all.
I don’t know what will happen then. And the more I learn about memory the more I realize that I may not really know as much as I think I do about what has happened already. Maybe there was no intern in the room when I got my news. Maybe the lights were fine. Maybe I misheard the doctor. Maybe his shirt was red or brown or gray or white.
Maybe my “core memory” is just a story I told myself that’s only 60% true.
In the end, what I have is now. This moment.
And this moment is enough.
May it ever be so.
We had an interesting conversation last night about the past and the present - and their influences on one another. Today I have been reflecting on your comment about the future. I am thinking about all of the ways we try to control the future, when we really have no control at all. We sometimes call it planning for the future, but we really we are planning for the hope of a future. Once again, indeed, you remind us we have only now. Thank you.
I love/hate this topic of memory so much. My own memories plus my dad’s dementia make this such a gnarled ball of twine, but you are right that we have now. I also think we can deeply know ourselves without having perfect or accurate memories of where we have been. Amazing writing, Jeff ❤️