The Monster Called Memory

“Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you—and summons them to your recall with will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!”
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory lately. I’m doing some research for a personal project which involves delving back into my diaries from the last few years. It’s been a fascinating process.

After a series of events in 2011, my life changed quite dramatically. Now, as I read about my life back in 2010, I marvel at how unrecognisable I am only three years later.

Yet the things I’ve forgotten come back to me as I read. I find myself constantly thinking, “Oh yeah, that happened! And I used to do those things! And I used to live like that! That’s right! Now I remember!”

And then there are those things that I think I remember well, until I read about them in my diary and it turns out I actually perceived them, and wrote about them at the time, very differently to how I remember them. Now I’m confused as to which is the real version: the perceived version at the time, or the version I remember.

Memory can be a tricky little beast.

Sometimes, in cahoots with our eyes, it plays games with us: manufacturing false memories out of photographs or stories we’ve heard over and over. I remember the experience of frolicking and laughing at the beach as a child, for example, but only through the prism of the photographs of that day, not from my actual memory of that experience.

It seems to me that our senses are anchored to memory in different ways. For me taste brings back an emotional memory, while hearing’s memory is filled with nostalgia.

Music, for example, always takes me back to different periods of my life: The Smiths will always and forever take me back to being 16 years old and full of teenage angst, while Matthew Sweet’s album “Girlfriend” reminds me of the carefree summers of my early 20s.

In my experience smell is the sense that evokes the strongest memories. In the early 1990s I was working in the candy bar of the local cinema multiplex. One hot summer day everyone was asking for extra ice with their drinks and I’d gone out the back to the ice machine to get more only to find we were nearly out. To fill my bucket with the remaining ice in the bottom of the ice machine, I had to bend at the waist and practically tip myself into it.

As I did so, I was suddenly transported to the ice skating rink that I’d visited as a child. I was so overwhelmed with the memory that I went into a kind of shock. I had completely forgotten that I had gone ice skating as a kid, but the strong smell of ice had brought it all back so sharply that I momentarily felt as if I was back there, at the rink. It wasn’t till I had pulled myself out of the ice machine that I regained a sense of where I actually was and the memory’s strength faded again.

Freud’s theory of forgetting things states that we forget those things to which we have an aversion (even if the aversion is to something that is connected to the thing we forget).

We all have painful, even traumatic, memories that we want to forget, consciously or subconsciously. At times we don’t even realise how successful we’ve been at forgetting until something intervenes to drag the memory out from where it has been long buried.

But I do believe it is all still there, out of our conscious reach, perhaps, but still there.

When I was 23 I nearly drowned. Just before I blacked out completely, I had a sort of conscious blackout and then my entire life flashed before my eyes. It was like being in a small but completely dark room for a few minutes, then having a projector suddenly flicker on and show you a home movie of your every experience, big or small. And as you watch, you re-experience all the thoughts, all the emotions.

It was the most extraordinary thing. When I told my brother about it, he said that perhaps our brain is like a giant filing cabinet, and all our experiences, thoughts and emotions are filed away in it. Perhaps, he said, as I was nearing death my brain started frantically pulling out all the files trying to find an experience similar to what I was going through to try to find a way to deal with it.

Of course I couldn’t tell you now what it was that I had seen and felt during that experience. Obviously all the files have been put back in their place.

When I think of memory now, I combine the visual of the filing cabinet with the monster that John Irving likened memory to, filing things away and choosing what to hide and reveal.

Sometimes the monster tries to protect us, if it thinks it’s for our own good. Other times it conspires with our senses to trick us. And sometimes the monster’s revelations surprise and amaze us.

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