I am not a scientist. I just watch them on TV. There is likely legitimate scientific research that I am too lazy to look up that addresses the very issue I’m about to discuss. Basically if CSI hasn’t doesn’t an episode about it, I’m just going to assume it’s still a giant unfathomable mystery. No research was done in the writing of this post.
Which leads me to my framing question: How in hell does memory actually work?
I ask because of the bizarre abilities of my brain. I’m going to ask you four questions. Answer them as honestly as you can without Google’s assistance. Ready?
1. What did you have for breakfast yesterday?
2. Who said “No, I am your father”?
3. What artist has a song with lyrics that include “Annie are you okay, are you okay Annie”?
4. Who was the first prime minister of Canada?
I can answer two of those four questions without intense thought and/or online assistance. And the two answers are Darth Vader and Michael Jackson. I sincerely do not remember what I ate today, never mind yesterday, and I know I learned more than once who the first prime minister of Canada is and I could totally hazard a guess but I’m not going to say I have 100% certainty about the subject. But if you put on the Barenaked Ladies’ ‘If I Had A Million Dollars’ song I could, without thinking, sing every word accurately. No sweat.
I can’t remember anything about reading or studying The Mayor of Casterbridge other than my English teacher going off on a rant about how much she hated that Elizabeth-Jane had a hyphenated name. But I can quote the opening theme to The A-Team series at the drop of a hat.
Is it just that memory is strongly associated with emotion and therefore things we either enjoy, are strongly terrified of or angry about leave a deeper impression than things we are mostly ambivalent towards? Is it that we actively dump portions of what we consider ‘unnecessary’ learning to clear space for things we prefer? Or is it that we’re all hurtling towards a Memento-style existence in which we will only remember things tattooed on our bodies or immortalized in photography and everything else will be lost in the ether of time?
I remember getting my Tenderheart Care Bear for Christmas. I was so excited. I remember that excitement and how soft he was. But I don’t remember how old I was or what year it was or any other gifts I received. I can’t remember my own age some days. I only remember my parents’ birth dates after literally years of drilling from my sister.
But... if I had a million dollars, I’d buy you a green dress (but not a real green dress, that’s cruel)...
Memory! Hooo haaaa, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing…
CSI, you need to bring Marg Helgenberger back for a very special episode on brain function so this mystery can finally be solved for me. Dress Catherine up all sassy and put her on a road trip with Nick and have her roll her eyes about something he can’t remember and then have them discuss the science of memory and then – BAM – it’ll be locked in my mind forever.
And that really is how our memories function: smells, sounds, tastes… these are the triggers that unlock the doors to vaults in which experiences are stored. Which is why song lyrics come back with such clarity but things you crammed into your brain in soundless study sessions are likely lost in time.
I'm guessing here, though. I mean I'm not a scientist.
- Corinne Simpson