Part 1 is here. where I asked : In remembering, I too am overcoming the dimensions of time and space but do I have any interaction with the places I travel to or are those memories just visions of the past, unchanged from visit to visit.
Is a memory for instance, in a state of storage, something like a filing cabinet, inside the brain and retrieved as required, unaltered, from viewing to viewing. With modern brain imaging techniques (PET and MRI scans) the mysteries of memory are becoming clearer. They show that the hippocampus is involved with novel events and this activates the left inferior frontal lobe of the brain, allowing previous knowledge to be drawn from, thus leading to an elaborative encoding, essential for long term remembering. However, we don’t encode every detail and our memories often resemble Swiss cheese. We can only remember what we have encoded and what we encode is dependent on who and what we are at the time.This is one of the reasons that our memories are not exactly the same as those of others who experienced the same event.
Paul John Eakin, an autobiographer and professor emeritus at Indiana University, points out that remembering is an essential part of being human and the ability to relate one’s life is the difference between success and failure and for this purpose, my memory is good. My recalled experiences do not come to me however, as they did in the past. They come in their rich and vivid detail, which is altered by my reflections on the event and its environment, how it made me feel, the person I am now and what is acceptable in the present day place where I am doing the remembering. The gaps in my remembering and subsequent narrative I fill in unconsciously with constructed detail so that the story is complete, as narrative is the only way we can relate our life to others.
I had never given my memories a second thought until reading Daniel Schacter and Oliver Sachs but afterwards found myself wondering about my truth. Returning to the events in Vanuatu that I described in Part 1. The trip to the volcano was a blur. I know I wasn’t frightened at the speed we travelled whereas I know that I normally would have been. I also knew from my days working in Intensive Care what someone looked like that had shot half their face off, or who was severely burnt. The fear of what I would see and find on my arrival certainly was greater than my fear of the road. Once there, however, there are huge gaps in my memory. All I know for certain was how I felt as I looked on those corpses and attempted to help and comfort the other girls. Did we climb to the rim of the volcano that night? My memory says we did but logically that does not make sense. Surely in the time it took for word to get to us of the deaths and the time it took to travel to the other side of the island to the volcano they would have carried the bodies down to where the trucks could park. Was it that I had climbed to the rim so many times i the past my vision of it filled in that gap in my narrative, and was the rock that hit them described so well I had such a strong, vivid vision that it converted it into autobiographical memory? It is now known that episodic memory (the type of memory used for autobiographical recall) shares the area of the brain used for visual memory. If the image is strong therefore, it can be stored as a memory, another reason that people have different versions of the same event and at times, can even “remember ” events erroneously. Tor them it is a true memory. For me my version of events is where I go when I travel back to that night and whether it be true or false, it is real to me. It is my truth.
If we accept that memories are a construct of the mind and are created anew on each occasion of remembering, affected by our past experiences, knowledge and what we wish to create for the future, it is to be expected that another who experienced the same even will remember it differently as they bring to their memory their own past, present and future.
In order to create the self we wish to be, we remember “what” and ‘how” in order to have our memories fit the identity we wish to create for ourselves. When the ability to remember goes, the identity of the person fades along with their memories and they become ghostlike in life. As the ability to relate our stories diminishes with age, brain injuries and dementia, we lose our identity, and our sense of self, for it is our ability to travel backwards, into the past, which gives us our identity.
What comes first though? Memoir or identity? This will be the subject of another post – part 3.
This couldn’t have fitted better with the Carrot Ranch prompt for this week where we are asked: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story using the phrase, “I’d rather be…” You fill in what comes next. What would a character(s) rather be doing and why? How can you use the phrase as a literary device? Go where the prompt leads! Join in, visit the ranch and write a story or read a few 99 bite size pieces.
A moment of Lucidity