Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Speak(ing of) memory


Visiting my old London school 30 years on


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?

18 comments on “Speak(ing of) memory

  1. Pamela Beckford
    January 31, 2014

    I feel much the same way. In fact about three or four years ago I reconnected with some school friends. One has become a very dear friend. She remembers me and I barely remember her. Guess that part of my life was just in my past and I moved on to new memories. But I’m glad not everyone does that or I would miss out on so much,

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 31, 2014

      Are you sure she’s legit? Maybe you’re being scammed! 😜

  2. sknicholls
    January 31, 2014

    I studied dreams for a very long time, memory also, and it is a peculiar thing that the brain, being made of those same particles of DNA as the rest of your body, might have the capacity to “remember” the memories of your ancestors…though not overtly. Something to think about. That’s one theory that’s being explored. Shines a whole new light on the possibility of reincarnation.
    To answer your question, yes, we talk about reality.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 31, 2014

      God, I hope I’m not receiving my ancestors’ memories! Hard enough dealing with my own…

  3. cleopatralovesbooks
    January 31, 2014

    I’ve had the same experience with my brother. He will clearly recount a fairly dramatic story which I was part of and I can’t recall it at all… odd because I am older than he is.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 31, 2014

      Isn’t it strange? I wonder what causes one sibling to remember something and another to forget it completely. I guess this is why we take pictures!

      • cleopatralovesbooks
        January 31, 2014

        Yes it is weird because some of the stories fit the narrative of our childhood and even now I know them I can’t dredge up one iota of memory to support it. Yes photo’s are a great prompt for memory recall.

  4. Luanne
    January 31, 2014

    Kevin….wow, that’s 7 beford!! what a great pic! love it. Great post too….scary about the brain messing with our memories.!

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 31, 2014

      No. 7 hasn’t changed very much. Except that it’s now called the Pickwick Hostel, or something smarmy like that. There used to be a YouTube video of a Central College alum going through it, but he took it down. Pretty strange to wander up and down those stairs again…

  5. ioniamartin
    January 31, 2014

    I like to think that only the memories where I am not doing something embarrassing are true. The others are all just stories from people who were more drunk than I was.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 31, 2014

      I think you’re on to something, Ionia. The alcohol factor.

      • ioniamartin
        January 31, 2014

        It makes sense to me even sober

  6. Phillip McCollum
    January 31, 2014

    I think this supports Homer Simpson’s argument to “keep killing the brain with beer.”

  7. John W. Howell
    January 31, 2014

    I just had an experience with what you are talking about. When I was working there was a guy in our group who was a Captain in the Naval Reserve. We were all drinking heavily and he decided we needed to go water skiing behind a navy patrol boat. Well, long story short we talked him out of it. I just told him the story this week (30 Years later) and he didn’t remember a thing.

  8. 1WriteWay
    February 1, 2014

    Reality is always subject to debate between me and my family, so I usually don’t bring it up. Case in point is my distinct memory of my mother referring to me in a certain way, when I was a child. Naturally, she doesn’t remember and even claims that she *never* would have said that. So not only does she not remember, but there’s that lightly veiled suggestion that I am lying. So I keep my mouth shut now. I’m sure some of it has to do with people not wanting to remember things that they said or did that they would now regret, or maybe even regretted then but they can’t take it back.

    Sometimes I feel my brain only has so much room and it simply can’t contain all the memories that I might otherwise share with family or friends. I haven’t read the article you linked to, but I wonder if these differences in memory retention have anything to do with personality type. As an introvert, I spend a lot of time observing people, trying to read them through their actions and not just their words. I’m focused on the details, while others around me may be more focused on some other aspect of the exchange, if they are focused on the exchange at all.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 2, 2014

      Ha, you’re probably right about some people not wanting to remember things.

      Interesting thought about introverts/extroverts. I wonder. We probably train our brains subconsciously to remember things we think we’ll be able to use to our advantage. Or our brains train us… 🙀

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