When Marcel Proust activated memories of his childhood through the familiar taste of a Madeleine cookie dipped in tea, he questioned the method through which we recall past events. He went on to write the seven volume monolith In Search of Lost Time — a novel on involuntary memory. It was through that tea soaked Madeleine that he revisited that time long gone, yielding warm recollections of Sunday mornings spent with his aunt. Each time his lips sunk into the cookie, those memories became stronger and more vivid, forever changing his current vantage point.
The nature of the malleability of memories is seemingly odd. How could our own recollections possibly be different from what they were? I mean, we were there. We experienced it. When people recall a particular time frame or generation, they view those ‘memories’ in terms of images and icons. Anyone over the age of 40 or 45 can remember the 1970′s. Try asking someone who wasn’t alive around that time what the 70′s was like and they’ll recall what’s been seen in television, movies and music — bellbottoms, Eric Clapton, Vietnam. That ’70s Show serves as a reference but we know that wasn’t actually the 1970′s. Starsky and Hutch is a better reference, so when someone who wasn’t around that time refers to a show like this, they are using those images. No kid looks back in time in HD Blueray vision. The same way kids today view the ’50s as a period where everything was black and white also goes for ’70s — an era of bright colors in a faded, washed-out fashion. Through the mediums of vinyl records, Polaroid cameras, and old TV shows, there is a connection to this time. Via these reference points, younger generations have captured a feeling for what life was like back then. Even though kids these days may not know what it was like to play music on an 8-track, they can grasp the nuances of the decade in image, color, and feeling — just like a memory. Whether you’re 75 and listening Perry Como, 40 and spinning Crowded House, or 27 and bumping Ja Rule from 2005, the nostalgia hits all the same.
If younger generations have the ability to simulate another generation’s emotions felt through their pop culture, television, and music, even though they weren’t there, does that mean we do the same for the memories produced by our daily activities and decisions when we were present? How we revert to earlier times in our lives ultimately affects how we encounter new instances of similar form. Take the all too familiar situation of unrequited adolescent love — how difficult yet oddly comforting it is to go back to thoughts of her. The way her hair moved in the wind. What the sky looked like the day he had first seen her. The way her nose turned pink when it was cold outside. That certain garden she liked. And so he visits that garden every day, reminding himself of her, simultaneously revisiting those memories, each visit stronger than the previous. Each time her wavy hair moved more beautifully in the wind. Each time the sun shone more vibrantly. Each time, the experience more vivid. All he has to do is visit that garden to experience that visceral ride all over again.
Those synaptic pathways are always changing.
Could there be a pattern as to when these memory-induced feelings arise — a pattern as to how we program these memories? Not to say that we’re inside the Matrix, but consider how many people, often insomniacs, have had their best ideas at 2 in the morning. How that magical hour produces the keenest insight and the greatest plans, only to vanish ethereally in the realities and monotony of the day. Yet, the insomniac finds something special in the magic of that hour, so he revisits it, entrancing himself with his ideas, making plans for the next day which dissolve yet again. Maybe this is why Tyler Durden appeals to the young; they see him as the embodiment of that energy coming to life; he does what those people wish they could do a 2 in the morning.
I believe we do this to ourselves to make some sort of sense of all the events in our lives like a narrative. The amount of cognitive dissonance we would have if we didn’t weave all the events in our life together would probably make our heads explode. And so like a movie of our life, we turn up the volume, change the brightness, increase the quality, leave certain memories to wither out while others hypertrophy, and even erase some facts or lie to ourselves, tweaking and tuning our past to make things compatible with our present frame of reference. This is why some habits and some people never change for years even in a world of limitless choices. But it is also where the power of changing lies as well.
The weird thing about memories is how abstract they can become. The very activity of recalling them changes their nature in an almost uncertainty-principle kind of way; our measurement affects our accuracy. There is only one measuring tool we use to trace back to them – time. But with memories, time dilates, making it unreliable yardstick. Our reference frame constantly changes and is eventually more different from the genuine form than we realize. Maybe it’s why a boring afternoon can drag on forever but yet a year vanishes in a blink. It’s such a weird concept to think about, the very idea that memories are static vaults of information that we access infallibly is wrong. They are dynamic and plastic, changing due to different experiences. Kierkegaard said philosophy teaches us that life is to be understood backwards but must be lived forwards, meaning that the individual should never find himself complacent in a static position. Yeah, it’s a refrain that’s been said many times, but it’s the only way to deal with the years of pain single moments can produce. Or for aging people who are living their life in suspended animation, yearning for The Best Days of Their Lives Back Again, wishing there was a redo button. So although some memories may never change, whether they are sad or blissful, what is done today forever affects how we remember our experiences, and how we remember our experiences affects what we do today.
“There is no such thing as a detached observer.” – Heisenberg
Written to Hammock – I Can Almost See You