Memory is an act of creative retrieval. Without the ability to remember, we could not learn. When we remember a past circumstance we never recall it to mind in exactly the same way. Human memory is not a storage device that encodes and replays experiences the same way each time. The content of our memory is in constant motion. Remembrance is a creative dynamic.

That’s not how I remember it

Exploring Life - Inside MemoryThe word memory originates in the Latin memor meaning mindful or remembering.

We use memory to describe our ability to remember, recollect, recall, retrieve, or revive a mental impression of a past experience.

Memorization is often associated with rote memory, or the mental repetition of facts in order to precisely recall them at some point in the future. Someone with an eidetic memory is able to recall images, sounds, and objects with great precision and detail. Precise recollection of the past does not necessarily translate to better critical or creative thinking.

Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.

Marcel Proust

The dynamics of our memory changes over time. Our memories are in constant motion. An event in the past can be remembered at various different times over the course of our life. We never remember the experience in exactly the same way. Our memories creatively flow into a narrative of felt-meaning.

We remember how we felt when something happened more than the factual data surrounding it. Felt-meaning is the creative force of memory. Through remembrance, we feel the content of our experiences in the context of our present circumstances.

The creative elements of memory include thoughts, ideas, perceptions, habits, moods, feelings, and emotions. When we recall something to mind, we re-create each time.

Memory is a form of negotiation between something that happened in the past, and the confluence of everyday life in the present moment.

Where has my memory gone?

Memory is intimately connected to aging. We do not remember things in the same way when we are fifty years old compared to twenty-years old.

There is too much emphasis placed on memory as the strict recall of specific facts and information. Youth do not have better memories simply because they are younger. By the time we have reached the second half of life, the dynamics of the mind have both deepened and widened.

Aging is the underlying ground of our physiological, mental and emotional journey through time. As we age our capacity for remembrance increases and expands. The feeling of the past changes as we get older. The felt-meaning of a past memory is never quite the same each time we remember it.

We do not lose our memories as we get older, unless we suffer from dementia. The dynamics of memory do change. No memory is ever quite the same.

We always look back into time from the unique perspective of present circumstance.

Upgrading Human Memory

Computer memory is a mechanical storage device. The closest approximation to this in human terms is rote learning, which is also a trivial perspective.

Human memory creates a narrative structure in order to give our experiences meaning. Without a connecting narrative, our minds would be incoherent.

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

On a computer hard drive, vast amounts of data is stored and recalled with perfect electronic precision. However, computers are incapable of creating an underlying narrative to give it coherence and meaning.

The elements of human memory include insight, imagination, feelings, and intuition. The elements of computer memory are digital ones and zeros.

The ability to recall facts and information is a worthwhile skill to develop when it is required. However, having the ability to recall vast amounts of information does not mean we are more intelligent.

Knowing how to access information efficiently when we need it is a far more important skill to develop.

We can learn to remember, but we cannot learn to forget

We cannot completely erase experiences from memory. Nor do we need to. There are experiences that perhaps we wish we could forget. Ironically, the more we try to forget something, the stronger it becomes in our memory.

For a number of scientists, the idea that memory is a recording device rests on an unrealistic fantasy of accuracy and permanence.

– Brainpickings: Memory Is Not a Recording Device: How Technology Shaped Our Metaphors for Remembering

We can intentionally bring various qualities of attention and awareness to our memories. Mindful learning improves our basic quality of mind, and memory. A good memory is more than just recollection. A good memory is a constant source of insight and new understanding.

We do not need to try and preserve memories. It is better to constantly revisit them in the light of our own experiences. Memory is a playground of discovery. When we remember something from our past, we forge a new relationship with it.

We are all artists of remembrance

A memory never occurs in the past; a memory is only about the past.

We can’t actually live in the past, we can only be confined by it. Being stuck in the past means our memory has lost the urge to create, explain, and understand.

All of our memories occur in the present moment – the here and now. What we recall about an experience a year ago is different from what we recall about it now. Precise recollection is not important, but the narrative we are creating from our memories is the urge toward meaning.

Our beliefs, attitudes, thoughts and emotions constantly change over time. Each time we pursue a memory, we do so from a different perspective. The felt-meaning of present moment influences the shape and contour of our remembrance.

The wonderful thing about memory is that we never revisit a past experience in exactly the same way. Something about our recollection has always changed.

What time is it?

Chronography is the science of sequentially ordering events through time. This is the basis for making a timeline.

A mechanized memory creates timelines of past events. History is reduced to chronology. Human memory does not seek to create a chronography of life. Our memories are non-linear.

As we get older, the felt-meaning of our memories becomes more important than the facts and details that surround them. Over time, our relationship with the past changes. Creativity is the essence of our conversation with memory.

Memory is the place where our own unique narrative unfolds over time; it gives birth to our identity.

A Crisis of Memory

One of the most devastating age-related diseases is 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.

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, our personal narrative deteriorates into uncertainty about self. Both of my parents suffered from various degrees of dementia. I can recall visiting my mom in the nursing home, and there were times when she did not recognize me.

Dementia can impair our memory so that we are unable to recognize essential relationships in our life. Without memory we don’t know what we belong to any more. Our relationship with our own story and the people around us become a source of confusion and uncertainty.

In the absence of memory we lose our place of belonging. And we feel lost, alone, and abandoned in the midst of a crowd.

Inside Memory

Memory cannot be located in a specific place; it is a phenomenon that is distributed throughout the entire body.

Physiologically, memory is present inside each and every cell of our body. Memory also permeates the fabric of the mind. We cannot know or understand without using our memory. To lose our memory is to lose the underlying ground of the mind.

In his wonderful book Inside Memory, Timothy Findley presents a variety of compelling perspectives on memory:

  • 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.

To be inside memory is to enter into a crucible of creativity.

Memory is not only the space of remembering, it is the place of belonging.

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  1. says

    Hi Brian, perhaps you can advise. Mum 84 is showing signs of dementia and possibly the big ‘A’ (as we found a tea towel and tissues in the fridge the other day) However she is repeatedly asking the same questions, or forgetting where she has placed things. My main concern however, is that she seems to be hoarding – 2 freezers full to the brim with food – yet she won’t cook for her or dad and continues to buy more (which I have stopped) She is also surrounding herself with old photographs – they are everywhere. She was a great cook and hostess in her younger years…right up to her 70’s now she is afraid to have people over or cook for anyone. Are the photos being kept around her as her association to who she is and her past? Anything you can advise would be helpful.

    • says

      Hi Jenny,

      I’m sorry to hear about what is happening with your mom. Your description reminded me of similar experiences with my mom and dad. I always tried to treat a repetition as if it was the first time I had heard it. Fortunately for us, the problem never became too severe while they were at home. Perhaps your mom’s photos offer the comfort of something familiar.

      There is a wonderful book called Counterclockwise by Ellen J. Langer you may want to have a look at. It is based on an experiment in which a group of elderly men lived for a week as if it was 1959, and demonstrated dramatic improvements in their health. I’m not sure it sure it helps with the issues surrounding dementia, but it does offer good insight into your question about relating to the past.

      Kind regards,

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