Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Mind is a Wonderful Thing

I’ve always thought that I have an incredibly bad long-term memory. I would have told you that I didn’t have any memories from when I was younger than ~eight or nine years old, and that I didn’t really have that many memories from before I was fourteen.

However, a conversation I was having with my friend Maria last night has made me rethink this. We were talking about phantom memories, and she was saying how disturbing it was to her to have large gaps of time where her only memories are phantom memories. She can feel her phantom memories just as vividly as real memories; in fact, the only clue that they are ghosts is that sometimes, she can identify elements from different aspects of her past that could never have been together in that way due to geographic disparities. Then she talked about her myriad memories of different parks; she knows that her parents used to take her to parks all over Ottawa, but she can’t connect those memories to real places in any way. Then she talked about the fact that she really can’t remember the school she attended in Grade 9, which was the old Sir Wilfred Laurier high-school. We ended up driving around Gloucester in the dark, tracking the school down by the wisps of her memories, but the whole conversation got me thinking.

I have a fabulous memory of most of the places I would have been as a child. I can still mentally drive along Highway 33 between Kingston and Picton, I can walk the halls of every school I’ve ever been in (and not just the ones I attended either), I can remember the contents of the classrooms, I remember the dentist’s office, and the shop where we bought my glasses in Kingston.

I’ve read speculation (or it might have been research, but I can’t remember so it may as well be speculation) that many of us can’t remember anything from when we were infants and toddlers because at that stage, your brain hasn’t really figured out how to categorize, store and index memories. You still have those memories, locked away inside, but no way of accessing them now that your brain has invented a usable filing system.

I’ve always thought it was bizarre that my memories start at about the age when I really turned into a reader. By the time I was nine or ten I was reading a thousand books a year, and so it has always seemed to me as if my brain took the storage structures and frameworks from the nature of the written work.

Of course, I often can’t remember a book I’ve read two days after I finished it. I generally read for emotional escape, so I’m too damn busy experiencing the book (and blocking out the real world) to make any mental notes on what it is about.

Some people dream in black and white, some in colour: I dream in narrative. I generally don’t remember my dreams, but on the days when I don’t set my alarm, and I laze around in bed, I sometimes find myself aware of my surroundings, knowing that I’m still asleep but unable to wake up, trapped in a dream. Those dreams always take the form of stories, bizarre and unpredictable stories, it is true, but stories nonetheless, and they are curiously devoid of images or sounds or any of the senses at all. It feels exactly the same as it does when I’m reading a book.

But now after this conversation with Maria, I’m convinced that my brain also organises information spatially. I’ve always been the kind of person who maps out the world in her head: if I’ve ever driven to a place before, I can generally find it again. I can’t remember the names of the streets, or the street number, but I have enough clues about how far I go and where I change directions to get myself back again. Every time I take a new street it fills in a grey area in my map of the world, and it takes a long time before the map greys out again.

I suspect the mysterious workings of my body and mind are never going to cease to thrill me.


Blogger JennyDR said...

Memories are like shadows ever changing - impossible to pin down. Just when you're positive you've got it, you wake up and realize you don't!

7:44 p.m.  

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