Comparing Memories

Comparing Memories

Some memories get recalled again and again. We tell them as narrative refrains that are mixed in with accounts of new experiences — ‘It was just like back when . . . ‘ Sometimes memories are drawn out to be retold (or silently remembered) at certain times of year — like the memory of a good bye on the anniversary of the last time a loved one was seen.

Memories are not simply what happened to us then. Memories are how we build our now out of the stuff of what we’ve carried inside of us from before.

Teaching history, I am intrigued by memory. It is the source for our understanding of the past and of the present. But it is a flowing resource and a work in progress. To understand the power of memory — and its potentials for shaping our nows and our futures — it is important to observe that memory is not solidly fixed and it should not be assumed to be static. 

Sometimes I ask my students if they write a journal. There usually aren’t that many in a class who do. But in a group of twenty I will generally find one or two. I ask them to try something: Think of a memorable event that you have recalled to mind several times since it happened. It could be a pleasant or an unpleasant memory. Do you recall when it happened? Are you fairly certain about the facts of the event? And, are you reasonably sure you wrote about it in your journal at the time that the things remembered happened? Now, go and find the account you wrote down about what has inhabited your memory.

I’ve done this myself a number of times. I have over two decades of journals to consult. I treat them as a resource; a way of exploring what memory is and how to relate to it.

One of the first times I did this kind of research into the workings of my own memory, I set about looking up entries relating to a camping trip I’d taken years before. I carry small notebooks with me everywhere I go. There is seldom a moment when I don’t have one with me. I make sure I make regular notes and journal entries when I go on nearly all of my camping trips. I also keep calendars so that I can quickly scan them to find the dates of particular trips and memorable events. It wasn’t difficult to find the pages devoted to the trip. I found the notebook, flipped to the correct dates, and found what I’d written. There were even some small watercolour sketches to accompany the words.

What struck me was that the few images I’d painted were recalled much as I’d painted them. But the things recounted in the words — the narrative of those days — told a very different story than I recalled in memory. I recalled ‘correctly’ where I’d been and what I’d done. But my feelings about these things were not recalled the same way at all. In this particular case, the memories I recall now see this trip as a turning point in my thinking about creative endeavors; they are memories with happy emotions attached to them. But in those notebook pages the story is different. I remain confused throughout the trip about what to do with a creative project. I speak of how much this gives me stress. I speak about how I spend much of the time feeling unhappy.

I searched through over two years of journal entries and discovered an evolution in my thinking and my feelings about the creative effort in question (a novel-length story I was writing). The ideas formed slowly over time. Yet, in my present-day memories, there is a eureka transformation I associated with that camping trip. My memory of the event had changed from the recollection put down on paper to the recollection I use to understand myself today.

My students return to class and report on their comparisons of present memory and the way they characterized events at the time. The reports have an amazing consistency from class to class and year to year. Often the same words are used, in fact — ‘I don’t remember it [the event or feeling] at all the way I wrote about it back then!’

Of course, scientific research into memory has demonstrated similar things. Yet, I think we often tend to function as though memory is more solid and unchanging than it is. Hence the sense of surprise when we realize their is a difference between memories set down at one point in our lives and those recalled later.

All of this has huge implications for how we relate to memory, self-understanding, and understandings of those around us. It should also lead us to take these implications seriously when we join together in the exploration of memories and the histories that are created from them.

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