Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
An old friend from college contacted me out of the blue the other day — via Twitter, of all things. (If she’s reading: Hi, Luanne!). It had been a good thirty years since we’d had any contact at all, having spent just our junior year together in London. Then a couple of years later, the two of us, along with her new husband, drove to Michigan to attend the wedding of another classmate from that school. I suppose we exchanged a few letters after that, but, as adulthood will do to people, we lost touch. I moved to California, met my wife, rambled around a bit, did the whole life thing, and suddenly it’s 2014. Huh? Wha?
So hearing from Luanne was like traveling through a wormhole back to London, 1977. And I was flooded with memories.
Only, here’s the interesting thing: Luanne mentioned a few people in an email to me, and there was one I had, at first, no memory of at all. He was a guy I had no interaction with, so I guess it wasn’t too surprising that there wasn’t instant recognition. Gradually, a face began to take shape in my mind, and I said, “Oh yeah, that guy.” There were a few other people like that, people who just traveled in different cliques than I did, or who were interested in different things. I’m sure I’m the vaguest of memories in their minds too — Right, that guy who was always playing his stupid guitar in the lounge! (Insert ex post facto apology.)
This got me thinking about another thing that happened that year, a funny little moment that both my roommate, Jon, and I were present for, but the last time I mentioned it to him he had no recollection of it. Someone was scrawling a graffito on one of the posters we had taped to our door, and Jon snatched the pen out of her hand and threw it out the open third-floor window. This scene is as clear in my mind as a YouTube video, yet Jon says he doesn’t remember it.
The same thing happens all the time with me and my siblings. They’ll remember incidents with remarkable detail and clarity, while I go, “Sorry. Nada.” Then I’ll recall a seminal childhood moment, only to watch them shake their heads, and Mom looks on like the Cheshire Cat.
Strange stuff, memory. I guess that’s one reason I was attracted to it as a theme in Yesterday Road. What is memory? Where is it? Is it fixed or plastic? Is it even real at all?
I haven’t been able to find the reference, but I read recently that scientists now believe that often- vs. seldom-consulted memories have different characteristics. The brain seems to play with things, depending on one’s habits with particular memories. Maybe it improvises, so you don’t panic. In any case, the more you recall something, the more stable the details, but if you only call up a scene rarely it’s possible that the event will be different each time. Christ.
This is fascinating. It makes me contemplate the nature of reality itself, which is tricky stuff. Talk about plastic. If the brain is in charge, but the brain’s not objectively reliable, where’s the ground solid enough to build a sturdy house? If memories are more like dreams, seems like we’re on thin ice.
Here’s an article that covers some of the science.
What about you? Is “reality” subject to debate between you and your friends or family?