Secret Pop

Sep 15, 2013

The Remembering Self

I learn a lot when I'm driving.

I was driving back from Beulah's house a couple of weeks ago and I caught an episode of the TED Radio Hour about memory. There was one segment in particular that poked at me with special persistence. It was the segment featuring Daniel Kahneman called "How Do Experiences Become Memories?" The idea is -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- that a wonderful experience can be ruined if it ends badly, because the way things end is more significant or more intrinsically valuable when we form our personal stories. Because our memories of our experiences are more meaningful than the experiences themselves, and also because if something ends badly, it's more important to remember that fact than to traipse down memory lane, lingering on the parts of the experience that were idyllic. If idyllic ends in shit, it's the shit that counts.

It was posited that this is part of a species survival mechanism. That we have limited space in our brains, so nature wires us to remember the important takeaways -- and if something was terrible, it's important that we remember that fact so that we can protect ourselves from that same terribleness in the future. By the same token, if something painful ends in joy, the joy is the part that sticks. Take childbirth. Women often say you forget the pain. Labor ends in the arrival of a wonderful little gift, so that's the part of the experience the brain places in the time capsule. This certainly makes strategic sense in terms of survival of the species, because if women always remembered the pain, it's far more likely they wouldn't sign up for it again.

I am blessed and cursed with a very good memory. It seems my brain works the way that is most effective in forming memories in that I visualize everything. I remember the way things looked. I remember the weather. I remember what I wore. But it's fair to say that I also -- pretty much without fail -- remember how things ended. And usually in painful detail. And the problem with that is that that pain is very portable, and I take it with me wherever I go.

I have allowed a lot of experiences to be ruled by the memories of their failings and their endings, and I have experienced a lot of endings that ruined the experiences that preceded them. I guess there was some comfort in hearing that this is the way the human brain works and not some sabotaging tactic of my cruel inner self. But still.

The biggest problem with this process is the statistical reality that, if you live long enough, the majority of your brain space might be occupied by memories of unpleasant things that, by design, eclipse any of the pleasantness that may have surrounded them. Growing older is so much more complex and nuanced than Aspercreme commercials would have you believe.

I used to live in my memories. They were my fuel. An often bitter, poisonous fuel. Sometimes, I am actually nostalgic for times when I was living in the melancholy throes of nostalgia. I treasured memories of sadness because they were so much more powerful than any other kind. Now, that's a snake eating it's own horrible tail. For instance, I used to listen to a cassette we bought when these two guys from Canada came to sing at our church. And I remember the night that we saw them perform, one of the women in our church passed away. They announced it at the end of the concert. And my 4th grade heart went out to her two young children, who had come over to swim in our pool while their mom was in hospital. And every time I listened to that cassette, I would remember feeling sad that night and feeling my heart going out, and it was a feeling I went back to again and again.

But this is more about the parts we remember than it is about my specific habit of forcing myself to relive pain. And thinking about what we remember and what it means and how it shapes what we do next happened to be especially relevant to me the day I heard the piece. As it continues to be.

The TED Radio Hour piece I referenced can be found here:

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