What is the Lifespan of a Memory?
Memory is a funny thing. Why do we remember the things we do, and how is it that people remember the same event differently? How does one person remember and another forget? I’ve always been fascinated by this, and so when my kids were very young I began an informal experiment by asking them at different stages about their memories: “What’s your best memory? What’s your worst memory? What’s your first memory?” Even with their young brains, there are some things that they have already begun to forget. Which leads me to one of my biggest fears: that I will begin to forget too — their stories, my stories and my family’s stories. And if I forget bigger events, what will happen to those little moments? How my mother laughed and my father smiled? And what my daughter’s first hug felt like?
This melancholy musing has led me to ask: What’s the lifespan of a memory?
Family stories seem to be the easiest thing to keep alive. I keep dredging them up and telling them to my kids over and over. They love them. Their favorites seem to be the ones about themselves, or when I was a kid, or when their grandparents and great-grandparents were kids. One memory they cherish, in particular, is about their great-grandfather. Money was scarce for our newly immigrated family, and treats for the kids came in the way of fresh fruit or new shoes. One day, my great-grandfather’s mom gave him some grapes to take to school for lunch. When another kid tried to steal them, the precious grapes landed on the ground out of his reach. Before the other kid could get to them, my grandfather peed on them rather than lose them to the other boy. Obviously this is hilarious to the under-10 demographic and, therefore, still going strong in the family story rotation.
When I was going through my Mom’s things after she died, I found items that I had not seen since I was a child — objects that triggered other memories, long forgotten. My son helped me go through some of the things. Opening a box that still smelled of smoke — my Mother smoked most of her life — my son said, “Hmmm. That smells like Grandma.” It did to me too. Some ‘60s costume jewelry put me back to first grade when my mom delivered cupcakes to my class wearing purple crushed-velvet hot pants. (If you’re wondering, I don’t classify that as a bad memory.) All the other kids were jealous that my Mom was so beautiful. And she was. I can still hear her voice, and I remember the way she walked, the way she laughed and the sparkle in her eye when she smiled. She and my dad both had lilting Southern accents, sharp wits and a relaxed way of speaking. Those kinds of memories are not destined to be catalogued in the family’s greatest hits, but they are the most precious ones that I’m most desperately afraid of losing. What it felt like to be hugged by them. Loved.
Those kinds of memories are not destined to be catalogued in the family’s greatest hits, but they are the ones that I’m most desperately afraid of losing.
Unfortunately, though, I think I’ve entered the age of forgetting. At least once a week, I will walk out to the garage and can’t remember what I went out there for. Was it pasta? Apple juice? Crackers? I’m usually forced to stand there for a few minutes until it comes to me. Of course, that’s short-term memory. But I wonder if it’s a troubling trend. Sometimes it feels like there is so much to do and remember every day that I wonder if all the family memories informally entrusted to my siblings and me will one day be pushed out by, “Where are the car keys?”
According to an article in Smithsonian, “How Our Brains Make Memories,” to make a memory, the brain adjusts the connections between neurons. The neurons then send messages to one another via a synapse. All of these cells are manufactured from proteins. Short-term memories involve quick and simple chemical changes to the synapse, but to build a memory that ranges from hours to years, neurons must manufacture new proteins and literally be built into the brain’s synapses. Scientists had generally assumed that once a memory was made, it was made and not easily undone. More recent research, however, implies that this is not always the case. In fact, memories can be altered by the mere process of remembering them. Mind blown.
I began to think about all the times I would inwardly roll my eyes as my mother or father told me the same story over and over again. Maybe that was their way of remembering it, and maybe that safeguarded me from forgetting it too. I also realized for the first time that their memories — my kid’s memories and mine — are all somehow smushed together. The other day my daughter asked for salt on her pizza. “Hmmm,” I said, feeling cozy and only slightly alarmed by the excess salt. “Grandma used to salt her pizza too.”
Such a fabulous, well written story. I too used to roll my eyes as my mother repeated the same stories over and over. I now find mindself doing the same thing.
Thank you so much for your kind comment–I guess we all realize later how much we miss that–even if it seemed annoying at the time.
Dear Jen, It is 2020—three and a half years since you wrote this. I am researching memory and was hitting a brick wall, until I read these lines: “Scientists had generally assumed that once a memory was made, it was made and not easily undone … In fact, memories can be altered by the mere process of remembering them.” Eureka! I once read that, when we remember an event over and over, after the first time, we are actually remembering the memory of the event, not the event, itself. I believe that’s true, and your sentence about memories being altered by the process of remembering them seems to confirm my belief. This blog post or essay is very well written. I am an author and an editor, which seems to make it OK for me to make such a judgment. I’m writing this in the middle of Covid-19, and I hope you are keeping safe. Best regards, Bobbi
Such kind and thoughtful comments and feedback! Thank you! Keeping safe and definitely making memories. Wish things were not this interesting! You also please stay safe and wishing you the best, Jen
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