Memory

I have sometimes heard people say, “I will remember that if I live to be 100.” It’s one of those statements that breeze out the mouth and disappear into the air without meaning much. Or, somebody might say, “I will never forget the time …..” Again, the listener, with no prior investment in the story may or may not retain it for five minutes. But it is doubtless the teller does remember, with a vividness that the original event may have lacked.

We all remember things that, indeed, we will remember if we live to be 100. Some are remembered because of their novelty, or due to some physical impact which left us shaken, or elated, or ….. name your emotion. Strong ones are remembered. This, according to the Fundamentals of Instructing, a flight instructor’s handbook, is called the Law of Effect. We remember those things which, for us, have a strong emotional impact, usually pleasant, but nearly as often unpleasant.

We also remember things which are vivid. Flight instructors call this phenomenon the Law of Intensity. A student learns more easily how to fly an airplane by flying an airplane than by an equivalent period of time reading a book about flying an airplane.

The Law of Primacy is another which effects our learning and remembering. It says, “Things learned first create a strong impression in the mind that is difficult to erase. For the instructor, this means that what is taught must be right the first time.” This, too, is common sense. We see it in ourselves daily as we continue to do a thing incorrectly despite understanding our error. After all, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

We remember things well which are nearest us in time. This is the Law of Recency. It is elementary that one remembers a magazine article that one read yesterday better than the details of a book read last August. Memory, to be sure, is a volatile substance and it tends to evaporate and diminish with time.

That is all well and good and we are all familiar with these phenomena. Having said that, however, one is compelled to observe that not all memory is like that. There are indeed episodes in our lives that we will remember with incredible detail until we die and nobody, not even the almighty and intrepid flight instructor, can explain why. There seem to be outliers, memories that stay with us no matter when they happened, no matter what they consist of. One assumes that they follow the Laws of Learning in some complicated way that is not clear. It can only be said that the particular anecdote in question flips a switch in the mind that all the others have not. Some very vivid memories fade with time. Others, which seem to have less import, are retained throughout life.

When I was seven I broke my finger. Actually my good friend struck the blow which broke it with a little shovel as we were digging together in a sand pile. I retain the scar to this day. This experience should live prominently among the memories of my childhood. Why? Well, for one thing, it was presumably painful. Not only would the initial blow have hurt but there were complications with setting the bone. After weeks in a pseudo-cast the bone was not healing properly and had to be reset with a metal pin protruding from the end of my finger. All this would seem significantly vivid and emotional to trigger the Laws of Intensity and Effect. But I remember very little of the experience and much of the detail I do remember may have been supplied by my parents. I don’t remember getting chopped by a shovel and I don’t remember two hospitalizations. Granted, they are there in the little gray cells, but they are foggy, shrouded, and patchy. Oddly, though, I remember in great detail a trifling episode which happened concurrently involving my third grader teacher.

Mrs. Spence had sent me to the office with a note of some kind, not concerning me. Instead of delivering the note promptly, I got sidetracked and spent considerable time talking to my second grade teacher, Mrs. Pinger, in the library. When I did not return with the expected response Mrs. Spence came looking for me. I will always remember the words she used when she finally found me. She said, “Mr. Joy, I have a bone to pick with you.” There are a number of theories I have developed to explain the retention of this meaningless experience for forty years:

1. I had never been addressed as Mr. Joy before, it was a novelty.

2. I had never heard the term “bone to pick” before. Perhaps I took it to be a more menacing phrase than it actually is and remembered the incident with fear.

3. It may have been the first time I got “in trouble” with a teacher. Perhaps the reproach of an authority figure, whose approval I sought was traumatic enough to etch the incident in my memory.

4. Perhaps my undeveloped social sense had for the first time recognized a crack in the previously monolithic world of adults. I definitely understood that Mrs. Spense was not only angry at me, but also at Mrs. Pinger. This may have constituted a remarkable discovery.

All these theories contain possibilities, but none seems more substantial than having your finger mashed by a spade and being put to sleep in an operating room. Certainly the event meant nothing to anyone else. Mrs. Spense, if she remembered me even, would never recall the incident in the hundred years that I will retain it.

If you think I’m exaggerating a bit, consider this. My Grandmother often related to me the story of an insult she fancied had been made against her by a teacher in high school. That would have been about 1935. Until dementia overtook her in her nineties she could describe in exacting detail the stitches her home economics teacher made her cut out of a garment she was sewing. That was almost eighty years ago. People who can’t remember their own blood type will have such incidents seared into their memories until they shuffle off this mortal coil. Sometimes these trivial incidents are all that are left for an Alzheimer’s patient when even the names of their loved ones have faded.

Memory is a fickle student. Try as I might I cannot retain certain facts that would serve me well in my career. Yet I’m sure that on my deathbed I will be able to sing the theme song from Gilligan’s Island. Neuroscientists tell us that it is possible to train the memory for improved performance. Techniques exist to organize information in the mind for recall of facts, figures, and even faces. The resilience of Gilligan’s theme song tells us that this can happen naturally. If one person could demonstrate the focus required to replace the cobwebs and augment the trivia of daily life with useful and pertinent information he or she would be the literal King of the World. In the meantime, “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip…”

Postscript: I am very interested in these memory conundrums. I would be interested in your experience, also. Please feel free to share in the comments section of this article any odd experiences you might have had with memory (insignificant incidents which were burned into your psyche, or vivid and impactful events which didn’t make the cut.) And, if you want, speculate why this might be. Thanks for reading.

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