The Magic of Memory
My older brother, Jeff, has a glorious memory; what is vague to me is often vivid to him. If I want to know what I was for Halloween the year he was a brown-box computer or whether our grandparents' house had windows in the attic, Jeff remembers. He helps me regain my childhood.
As a parent, Jeff also uses his memory to teach his young children what mattered to him growing up. At night, before bed, he tells them tales from his childhood, recalling a first bicycle, maybe, or his favorite place to get ice cream. The past isn't gone, he's saying -- it's part of who you are. His kids listen to him, then recount their own stories of what happened to them that day.
Memory isn't just storytelling, though. It's about expanding our understanding of the world we live in. "In the broadest sense, all the things we know are based on memory -- the name of the street we live on or the letters of the alphabet," says Susan Engel, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Williams College and author of Context Is Everything: The Nature of Memory. "All kinds of knowledge depend upon the fact that your mind retains and retrieves previously learned experiences. Sometimes, they come in the form of clear stories. Other times, they're triggered by a smell or a word we've encountered before."
All of which is not to suggest that memory isn't fickle, because it is. How it works, where it resides, how it shapes who we are, isn't wholly understood. Even the fact that most of us cannot recall much of what happened to us before the age of 5 or 6 is still a mystery -- though scientists now suspect that the circuits in the brain responsible for storing permanent memories haven't fully developed yet.
"Remembering the past is more like putting together pieces of a puzzle than reproducing a photograph or rerunning a videotape," says Daniel Schacter, Ph.D., chair of Harvard University's psychology department and author of The Seven Sins of Memory. "One way to think about it is that different aspects of an experience are stored in different parts of the brain. At the time of recall, we pull together these fragments of experience, and the result is memory."
So there's no Storage Central for retrieving pristine memories. Instead, recollections are grasped at, reassembled, reinterpreted. And every time we remember a certain memory, we take a step toward ensuring its longevity -- within ourselves, within our children.
Beth Kephart, the mother of a 12-year-old, is the author of three books, including Still Love in Strange Places, a memoir about memory, imagination, and El Salvador, which is being published this month.