[Exploring Life] The word memory originates in the Latin memor meaning mindful or remembering. In its simplest sense memory means the ability to remember, recollect, recall, or revive a mental impression of a past experience. The term memorization retrieves the idea of memory as type of intellectual skill we learn in school; an individual with a “good” memory can recall more facts and information than someone with a less able memory. However, the realm of memory and the act of remembrance are unique creative expressions of our experiences in life, that is to say, memories are created from the sum of our thoughts, ideas, moods, feelings, and emotions as perceived in the midst of the situations and circumstances that surround us in a particular moment in time. Remembrance is an act of re-creation.
Memory and aging form an intimate chronological bond. Aging is the underlying ground of our physiological, mental and emotional journey through time. As we age the space of remembrance continually increases and expands. When we are young our memories are relatively few. When we cross the threshold of middle-age, we secretly know that the breadth of memories about our past now outweighs our reach into the future. Throughout our lifetime we never really recall an important past experience in exactly the same way as we had before. This is because our present circumstance is dynamic and in constant motion. Memory is the artistry of remembrance.
Memory as Machine
Memory is often incorrectly equated with a mechanical storage device. Rote learning refers to the process of memorizing facts and information through the use of routine and repetition, without concern for their meaning or utility in life. When we engage in rote memorization, we link the process of remembrance to the image of a mechanical recording device that captures and stores data. What we sometimes fail to realize is that facts and information as an end unto themselves only invites the trivial into our lives.
There’s a beautiful, sad story written by a Russian psychologist named A.R. Luria about a patient called S, who supposedly remembered everything. S was an unproductive person. He couldn’t really hold a job. He couldn’t really make his way in the world because he just remembered too much… Luria writes that it’s actually forgetting that’s the essence of thinking: It’s paying attention to the things that are important and forgetting the things that aren’t, because otherwise you’re drowning in a sea of trivial things.
- Globe and Mail: How to Unlock Your Memory
We can learn to remember, but we cannot learn to forget. Ironically, trying to forget something can give it greater sense of presence in our mind. Memory is nothing like a computer hard drive; we do not create, store or delete memories in a mechanical manner. Perhaps the art of remembrance is more about ways of focusing our attention and awareness on our experiences, rather than making mechanical attempts to remember certain things and forget others. The human mind prefers to inhabit the discovery of meaning and the pursuit of purpose. If human memory were able to function like computer “memory,” it remains difficult to determine why we would want to rote learn facts and information in the absence of meaning, understanding, comprehension, and purpose.
The Re-creation of Experience
When we revive the memory of a past experience we attempt to re-imagine it in the present moment. We always retrieve past experience in the context of the present moment, which is constantly changing and evolving. In this sense, the art of remembrance effortlessly moves between past and present. Our beliefs, attitudes, thoughts and emotions constantly change over time. Each time we pursue a memory, we do so from a different perspective. The character of present moment inexorably influences the shape and contour of our remembrance; we never quite replay a past experience in exactly the same way.
For a number of scientists, the idea that memory is a recording device rests on an unrealistic fantasy of accuracy and permanence.
- Quoted in Brainpickings: Memory Is Not a Recording Device: How Technology Shaped Our Metaphors for Remembering
Chronography is the science of sequentially ordering events through time. The resulting temporal sequence forms a timeline. A mechanized view of memory would position the act of remembrance as an attempt to create timelines of past events in the mind. From this perspective, memory would allow us to literally relive the precise chronography of our life. Thankfully we are spared this repetitive drudgery. We know that human memory does not work to create a chronography of life; our memories interact with time in a non-linear manner.
The intersection of aging and memory is remembrance. Each time our memory revives a past experience our interpretation of that experiences evolves. Over time, our relationship with the past changes. Memory constantly presents new and creative perspectives to us over time. To engage with our memories is to engage in an interpretive and therefore creative act. Creativity is the essence of our conversation with memory. Memory is the place where our own unique narrative unfolds; it gives birth to our identity.
Perhaps one of the most devastating possibilities of aging is the loss of memory due to the onset of dementia (Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia). The word dementia originates in the Latin dement, which means madness or out of one’s mind. Aging increases the potential for the onset of dementia, and it is therefore a significant threat to the act of remembrance.
Dementia is a syndrome that affects memory, thinking, behaviour and ability to perform everyday activities. The number of people living with dementia worldwide is currently estimated at 35.6 million. This number will double by 2030 and more than triple by 2050.
- World Health Organization: Dementia: a public health priority
Without the ability to remember, we lose our identity and the world around us becomes a strange and unfamiliar place. It is bitterly ironic that after having lived into older age our most precious resource, our memories, are taken from us. Even a sad painful remembrance is better than none at all because we are still firmly entrenched in our own narrative. In the midst of dementia, however, our personal narrative deteriorates into uncertainty about self.
Without memory we don’t know what we belong to any more. Our relationship with our own story and the people around us becomes mired in an uneasy mystery. In the absence of memory we lose our place of belonging. And we feel lost, alone, and abandoned in the midst of a crowd.
Memory cannot be located in a specific place; memory is a phenomenon that is distributed throughout body and mind. Physiologically, memory is present inside each and every cell of our body. Memory also permeates the entire fabric of the mind. We cannot know or understand something without the involvement of our memory. To lose our memory is to lose the underlying ground of the mind.
- Memory… is the means by which most of us retain our sanity.
- Memory is the purgative by which we rid ourselves of the present.
- Memory is a form of hope.
- Memory is making peace with time.
- Memory is survival,
The artistry of remembrance is fundamental to optimal aging. More than rote learning and memorization, the art of remembrance seeks a deeper sense of intimacy and involvement with our authentic life course. The primary habitat of memory is our sense of relationship and belonging in the world. Our memories stabilize us as we relentlessly continue along our hurdling trajectory through time.