What is memory? Not just a recording

pkg lot cars-sm
What is a memory, anyway? Is it like a photo or a video clip? When you remember the day your dad took you to the amusement park and you rode on the toy train, what’s going on inside your head? Does your mental clerk walk over to a file cabinet, pull out a drawer labeled A for Amusement Park, or 1958, and finger through the tabs until it locates the file containing the relevant memory?

I don’t think so.

I’ve just spent two years writing a memoir of events that took place 40–50 years ago. To supplement my memories, I’ve pored over old diaries, letters, and photos; discussed chronology, geography, and other details with my brother; and viewed several hours of home movies, most of which I’d never seen before. And I have to say no; a memory is much more complicated than simply the record of an event.

Instead, the evidence suggests that a memory is more like a collage you’ve been working on since the day it happened. You might start with something like a snapshot—though already, your creative brain has made some artistic decisions: using the rosy filter of happiness, maybe, or the hazy one of intoxication. And then, every time you activate this memory, you add something new. The sense of standing outdoors, perhaps. The tinge of someone who wasn’t there, but who is now, listening while you tell it.

Here, for example, are a few frames grabbed from a home movie of my brother, age five or so, riding the toy train at Nunley’s Carousel on Sunrise Highway (south shore, Long Island), where Dad sometimes took us on weekends. I remember that train. One stretch of track ran beside the fence separating the rides from a parking lot full of cars. Just ordinary cars.

When I was first learning photography, how shocked I was to discover that my brain was always compensating for radically different light levels. Seeing this now packs a similar punch: the parking lot’s full of antiques! In my memory, they’re just everyday cars, the kind you’d expect. So the picture of the parking lot in my memory can’t be faithful to the literal details, can it? It’s an abstraction: part record, part idea, part feeling (the absence of surprise).

Taking this thought to its logical conclusion, it’s clear that, whenever in my life I’ve evoked this memory, the picture of the parking lot in my mind’s-eye must’ve been different from today’s. In 1972, or 1986, or 1993—always “ordinary” cars.

The conclusion is inescapable: a memory is anything but a pristine snapshot. At the least, it’s well-thumbed, dog-eared, smudged, stained, scribbled on, and framed in a story whose ending you do not yet know.