The Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel said, “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all . . . Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it we are nothing.”
What is memory?
Memory is who we are. We are our memories. They define and shape who we are, how we act and react, how we think. And memories can be triggered by something else: a smell, a taste, a sound. I can hear a song on the radio and immediately think of who I was with and what I was doing the first time I ever heard it.
When considering this type of memory, I cannot help but think of Marcel Proust tasting the Madeleine dipped in tea and how that simple act caused memories of his childhood to come flooding back. From this came his great magnum opus In Search of Lost Time. A masterpiece about what is perceived, what is remembered and the links between perception and memory. It was Proust who coined the term “involuntary memory,” which he believed contained the “essence of the past.”
For years I had attempted to read this monumental work to no success – until the death of my mother. It was only after her dying that I found myself drawn into this stream-of-consciousness masterpiece. Why? Because prior to my mother’s death, I had no context for searching for “lost time” or the past. I had not experienced enough to be able to fully appreciate or grasp the melancholy desire to return to the past. The older I get, the more I find myself doing this: revisiting my own childhood and having questions about memory.
The Greeks had a word nostos that meant “return” and another algos that means “pain or suffering.” Those two words are where we get our word nostalgia. Nostalgia, therefore, is the suffering caused by a desire to return to the past. Certainly there is a sorrow or loss that runs throughout Proust’s novels just as there is in any of our lives when we look back. We remember those we have lost. With each person that we lose who have known us since childhood, we lose a part of ourselves, a part of our story and our memory that is gone. After the death of my mother, I have often been filled with sadness that I cannot ask her about events from my own life that I am unsure of or ask her about her own life experiences and memories.
In one of my favorite novels, The History of Love, Nicole Krauss writes, “Every year, the memories I have of my father become more faint, unclear, and distant. Once they were vivid and true, then they became like photographs, and now they are more like photographs of photographs.”
It’s true. As the years pass, I lose more and more of my mother. I have to work harder to recall the sound of her voice or her laugh. I catch traces of her in myself and, especially, in my younger sister.
It’s interesting how I grew up in a house with two parents and a sister, but we can recall the same event differently. Aspects that stand out to me, are forgotten or were never noticed by somebody else. My sister and I can talk about our childhoods and have completely unique versions of how they unfolded and of our parents. Part of this is due to my being older but it’s also because our memories are filtered through who we are and our own perceptions and experiences. How we perceive often becomes how we see. Whose memory is the correct one? Can both be?
Memory is malleable. We reshape our memories with each retelling of a story. Something shifts, something changes. Memory is fiction. Memory is fantasy. Even Proust wrote, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
An article in The Atlantic by Erika Hayasaki addresses this, “Memory distortions are basic and widespread in humans, and it may be unlikely that anyone is immune.” She then asks, “As our memories become more penetrable how much can we trust the stories that we have come to believe, however certainly, about our lives?”
It’s a fascinating question. What is reality when it comes to memory? How much of what we believe is memory has been changed by personal life experiences? How much of what we call memory has been reconstructed over the years until we might even be shocked by how far it is from what really transpired? How much of memory is us attempting to integrate the details we remember into a coherent narrative?
This becomes even more difficult in people with traumatic memories. Those lodge themselves in a part of the brain where they cannot be assimilated into a narrative story, so much so that, when asked about such moments, they literally can only answer, “I don’t know.” They more often feel those memories in the present when they are triggered by something that reminds them. The past becomes present. They become trapped in their memories.
How often do we reshape our painful memories or simply try to forget them?
I cannot help but think of the brilliant film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in which the shy, soft-spoken Joel Barish (played by Jim Carey) decides to have all of his memories erased of a relationship that has ended rather than deal with the pain they cause him. The majority of the film transpires in his mind as the memories are being erased and we watch how other memories from Joel’s past begin to interweave themselves into those of his former relationship with the free-spirited Clementine (played by Kate Winslet). Slowly, we begin to see how memories from all of Joel’s past has impacted his life. We see visually how the memories we carry inside of us impact, positively or negatively, on our relationships and our perceptions of reality.
The memories we carry are tinged with emotion. As Erika Hayasaki wrote, “For all of us, the stronger the emotion attached to a moment, the more likely those parts of our brains involved in memory will become activated.”
What’s interesting is that scientists have recently discovered that the mind makes two copies of an event, it creates two memories, one for the present and the other is for the long-term version. In fact, researchers at MIT and a team in Japan discovered that two parts of the brain are involved in collecting and storing personal memories. Short-term memories are stored in the hippocampus, while the cortex stores long-term ones simultaneously.
Our memories lie at the core of who we are. Memory is defined by the totality of the things we’ve experienced in our pasts. Two people can experience the same event differently only furthers the individuality of memory. In his work A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume wrote that our identity or our self is a “bundle” or a collection of sensations or impressions. So what happens if those memories are erased (not by a machine like in Eternal Sunshine) but are lost through Alzheimer’s or dementia? How much of their identity is lost by the loss of memory? Or when memories from the past solely become their present? So that a son is thought of as a deceased brother? If those memories are stored for long-term how can those who suffer alzheimers or dementia become unable to access them? Can scientists discover a way to access them? Can identity be found and regained?
The more I research and study memory, the more fascinating the notion of memory, identity and self becomes. With each answer I uncover, a new question is formed.
French author Guy de Maupassant wrote, “Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.” But, after reading all that I have, I have to ask: Is it? Really?