Kim and I have watched a few episodes of “The Mind Explained” on Netflix. The episode that bothered me most was the one on memory. In it we learned, or relearned, that memory is an unreliable, even slapdash affair, where we piece together fragments from different areas of the brain. Eyewitnesses are unreliable.
Sure, my memory is getting worse – whose isn’t? But that’s not what bothered me.
When the “Memory” episode was over, Kim asked me if I had many vivid memories of growing up.
“Do you remember your high school graduation – walking across the stage?”
“No. I don’t even remember if it was indoors or not. I don’t remember my college graduation, either.”
My memory of the past is poor. Even the recent past. Always has been. My high school memories center around some pranks I pulled (e.g., detouring traffic into friends’ driveways), getting hit in the cup while playing hockey, and discovering William Blake’s “The Tyger” in 10 grade English (thank you, Mr. Hayes). A few more memories trickle in as I write these down, but not much, and not, I fear, very reliably.
“Where did you put the spatula?”
“I never touched the spatula, except for maybe a month ago. I distinctly remember not touching or even seeing it.”
Kim has several theories about why I don’t remember where I put the spatula, the names of people I just met, or what she fixed me for dinner yesterday. This may be age-related, but I don’t think so. See the word “always” a few paragraphs back. (At my age, I don’t have to worry about early-onset Alzheimer’s.) My brain may be busy trying to figure out what’s going on in Washington or what my next blog will be about. And this week I put together a document, “If David Dies First,” detailing for Kim how to access passwords and financial stuff on my computer, what is set up for automatic payment, who to call for insurance, investments, etc. This, addition to figuring out the 130 settings (true!) that need to be made on her new camera. This shit has to be occupying a lot of brain space! Not much left to remember where I put the fucking spatula!
For a few years Kim worked with a company called Creative Memories, where she taught people to make scrapbooks. What I like most about the company is the name. Most of my memories are creative. As I repeat stories about my past, as old people tend to do, I’m sure that I’m being creative, revising the story with each telling to make it more amusing or making me more wonderful. Memory is not at all involved here.
Also several years ago, I read an insightful book by Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson called Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). The authors argue that the brain is wired for self-justification. I think that many of my creative memories are a product of that wiring, as are the many blanks in my memory. I loaned the book to someone. If you are reading this and have my book, please return it.
I recall (I think I recall) hearing an interview with a very old Frenchman. He was asked about the secret of his being so healthy in old age.
“Poor memory.” He went on to explain that he simply failed to remember the people who had offended him and wrongs he may or may not have done – too long ago to do anything about. Instead, enjoy your coffee and croissant in the morning and wine in the afternoon.
By the way, the episode in The Mind Explained after “Memory” is “Psychedelics.” I have little to report on the subject at the moment, but stay tuned.