Memory and imagination


A Second Wind, by Mary Petersen

My friend recommended a book to me a few weeks ago — “Adventures in Memory.”

This, ironically, after I boasted in my last column that seniors have broader interests than just learning memory tips and techniques. But the subtitle intrigued me — “The Science and Secrets of Remembering and Forgetting.

Who doesn’t like a good secret? To be clear, the book is not a self-help manual written by a 20-something YouTube celebrity. One of the writers is a neuropsychologist and researcher, the other a celebrated novelist and editor. Together they present science-based research in a very readable style.

I discovered that I don’t know much about how memory works. I always thought of memory as a sort of repository of experiences in our lives. I knew about long-term and short-term memory and that memory is unreliable. (Ask five witnesses about an incident they observed and get five different responses.)

But I learned about why memory is unreliable. It’s because a memory is not like a read-only PDF, fixed and unalterable. The authors explain that memory is more like live theater. We create new productions of a memory each time we remember it. We maintain the central story or outline of the experience, but it’s reconstructed each time we recall it and subconsciously fill in the details with probable facts from a sort of memory prop room where persons, things, and actions are stored in a memory network. I’m not making this up. This is the brain’s way of freeing up space since we don’t need to store the exact details of every experience. So remembering is actually reimagining what happened.

Because memory is elastic and not fixed, memories can become confused or murky. Desires or fantasies can sneak into memory and seem like they really happened. The more time that passes, the more likely it is that the details change in our memory. So what is the value of memory if it is unreliable rather than stable and permanent? Memory would serve no vital function if memories were merely unchanging objects used to reminisce about the past.

Researchers suggest that memory’s evolutionary function is related not to just recalling the past but to envisioning the future. Brain MRIs show striking similarity in brain activity when people reminisce and when they imagine the future.  It’s the same process. Our memory is flexible because it’s essential for mental time travel into the future. Memory is utilized to generate plans for the future, and visions of the future are a natural part of past memories. Memory researchers now regard future thinking as one of the core functions of memory, paradoxical as it sounds.

This research also sheds light on forgetting. As we get older and experience glitches in brain function, forgetfulness feels like the first step in a downhill slide. But barring brain disease, forgetting is a natural part of the remembering process. Some memories need to depart to make way for new, more important ones. Working memory can only hold so much. And by the way, worries clog up the working memory, prohibiting the flow of actual information that needs processing. The authors urge us to “accept forgetting and let it do the job of chiseling out the most important things that will stand out like monuments in our memories, even if that means forgetting all the little things we wish we could remember.”

If you’re still not convinced that some forgetting is OK, and would rather pursue memory tips and techniques, the memory can indeed be trained to remember better. But training the memory doesn’t seem to broadly improve overall memory. It just improves the kind of task that one practices remembering. So if you practice memorizing lists of words, you’ll get good at remembering lists of words. If you want to get good at remembering names at cocktail parties, you can utilize techniques to do that. But even if you work daily crossword puzzles, you still might walk your bedroom, stand glassy-eyed, and not remember why you’re there.

In Greek mythology, the Goddess of Memory, Mnemosyne (like mnemonic device) is the mother of the nine inspirational muses who rule over the arts. So even in Greek mythology, the ability to imagine or create is closely related to memory. Humans are visionaries, and the basis for our visions lodges in our memories. By some calculations people spend more than half of their waking hours letting their minds wander between memories and future thoughts. This time spent imagining may be the most productive use of our memory. So let the mind wander and create, embrace experiences even though some details may be lost, and don’t fret if you feel you haven’t done enough Sudoku puzzles today.

Mary Petersen is a retired COC English Instructor, 30 year SCV resident, and two-time breast cancer survivor.

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