Our memories can be mysteriously fickle. One writer considers her own (ever-changing) sense of recollection.

By Daphne Merkin
Updated September 28, 2009
Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin

I have always been inordinately proud of my powers of recall, both factually and emotionally based. Although I don’t possess a photographic memory, my ability to conjure up names and places―the movie that’s on the tip of someone else’s tongue, the novel that was unforgettable but the title of which has slipped everyone’s mind at the dinner table―is fairly impressive. And then, too, sometimes when I can’t fall asleep at night, I walk myself through the rooms of my family’s first summer house, on West Beach Street, the one we moved away from when I was 10 years old. I can still picture the sloping ceiling in my sisters’ blue-and-white bedroom on the third floor, the confetti-like linoleum in the small room I slept in by myself behind the bedroom of our fear-inducing caretaker, and the way the back stairs led into the kitchen, with its old-fashioned stand-alone freezer that was filled with ice cream sandwiches. In my head, I am mapping a kind of psychological cartography of my life, trying to establish the wheres and whens of the whys.

Perhaps one of the most curious aspects of memories is how much store we set by them, given how subjective they really are. Then again, it is precisely because memories of experience―as opposed to retrieving a fact or a piece of information―are so often tinged with strong emotion that they seem to require so much pinning down, only to escape back into the tunnel of the past. The novel I published when I was 31, Enchantment, was, as so many first novels are, a slightly fictionalized walk down memory lane―in this case, one strewn with hurts and sorrows. But even then, more than two decades ago, I was aware of how contingent―how unreliable―those memories were, crucial though they may have been to me: “Can it be,” I wrote, “that memories are so precious because they are so individual―no two sets exactly the same, like fingerprints?... Without compliance from anyone other than ourselves our memories are no more than arbitrary. They are possessions we rearrange endlessly on a shelf somewhere in our heads: was it a Sunday two summers ago, or would the moment fit in better a bit further forward or further back?” Interestingly enough, scientific evidence confirms my unscientifically-arrived-at theory that memories are elusive and unique to the person carrying them. This would help explain why two people from the same family can remember events from their common background so differently, almost as though they hadn’t been living under the same roof, like the two sisters in Alice Munro’s story “The Progress of Love,” one of whom remembers their mother’s suicide attempt as a tragedy and the other as a dark joke.

But, yes, for the longest time I thought I was immune to the weakening of factual memory that assailed my peers. I would watch as one or the other of them looked visibly perplexed by the declining performance of this facility, by a temporary inability to remember something obvious and usually accessible, whether it was a niece’s or nephew’s name or the age of an ex-husband. I would think smugly to myself that I was safe, that there was something invincible about my memory, which I kept in good shape with the same attentiveness other people applied to dental hygiene. I had gotten into the habit, that is, of running my memory through its paces, of flossing it to a clean sheen by conducting little tests, checking to see if I could still recite Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” or whether I remembered the name of Lolita’s mother in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel.

Although I have no doubt that these exercises had their uses (if only to help keep me on my toes), the sad truth is that more and more often these days, my mind steps into a gap instead of a secure foothold, and I am lost as to where I read something or what year I went to London with my daughter or whom it was that I meant urgently to get in touch with after I bumped into her two days ago. This sense of slippage may also have something to do with the multitasking pace of my current life as compared with the fierce focus I had in my younger days. Contemporary existence demands so much splitting of attention―between phone calls, e-mails, text messages, Twitter, and the constant allure of online shopping, not to mention TV and DVDs―that only the most strong-willed go through life in an undistracted fashion. The problem in turn with being so distracted is that we inhabit daily experience in an absentminded mode and, as a result, have more difficulty forming strong memories, as though the passing moment didn’t leave enough of a trace. The puzzle of memory―specifically, instances of involuntary memory that are produced by cues as opposed to voluntary, consciously retrieved memories―was of supreme interest to the literary artist Marcel Proust, for whom a small cake called a madeleine was the key to unlocking In Search of Lost Time, seven volumes of some of the keenest social observation ever written. Proust, in turn, was thought to have been influenced by the theories of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who, in his 1896 book, Matter and Memory, made a distinction between habit memory (as in learning a poem by heart) and the sort of impressionist memory that reveals itself in sudden flashes. But the reality of different kinds of memory had been recognized before Proust and Bergson―most notably by a German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus, in a pioneering experimental study published in 1885. Up until this study, the bulk of the thinking on memory had been undertaken by philosophers, beginning with Aristotle, and their wholly descriptive approach focused on observation and speculation rather than verifiable experiments.

These days the science of memory is a well-established, thoroughly documented one. Microstudies on, for example, the interrelation between emotion and cognition have resulted in papers, replete with tables and statistical analysis, on such subjects as the creation of false memories, the eliciting of false confessions, and the conditions under which memory performance can be optimized. This last topic is of particular interest, I suspect, to baby boomers who have felt inoculated against many of the by-products of aging (sagging flesh, gray hair, increasing immobility) that afflicted their parents’ generation. Which is why creeping memory loss comes as such an unhappy reminder of mortality, clear proof that not everything yields to cosmetic cover-up or working up a sweat. (This is not to say that physical exertion doesn’t have its place in the overall scheme of things. Indeed, regular exercise is thought to keep the deterioration of memory at bay―as are blueberries.) Perhaps it is also why people who lived in less overstimulated environments―our parents, for instance―often appear to have a better grasp on the narrative of the past.

When it comes to a delicate neurological mechanism such as memory, however, much is surmised and little is proven. What is known has largely to do with the areas of the brain in which memories are formed and stored―primarily the cortex (or surface of the brain) and the hippocampus, which helps access memories in the cortex. It gets vastly more complicated from there. Broadly speaking, one of the major cognitive distinctions is between short-term versus long-term memories. “With the former,” writes Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University professor of biology and neurology, in a Scientific American article adapted from his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “you look up a phone number, sprint across the room before you forget it, then punch in the digits. And then the number is gone forever. In contrast, long-term memory refers to recalling what you had for dinner last night, how many grandchildren you have, where you went to college.”

Memory is also divided into explicit and implicit varieties: The former involves conscious awareness of the sort of basic facts they test you on in hospital emergency rooms to assess whether your brain is alive and well (“I am a woman”; “The month is October”; “Barack Obama is president”). Implicit memories, on the other hand, have to do with built-in skills and habits, such as knowing how to iron or to ride a bicycle. Recently, after years of not getting on a bike, I went out for a ride, fully expecting to fall over. True, I was a bit wobbly and acquired some painful black-and-blue marks from my excessive weaving, but what a relief it was to find out that there really are things you don’t forget, even as your retention of the information you gleaned in an article you read in the paper a mere two days ago seems to grow weaker right in front of your eyes.

Some of the findings that have emerged from decades of study are more hope-inducing than others: If you are an educated woman with an engaged social life and an internal locus of control (meaning you believe you have control over your life―and you exercise that control), your powers of long-term recall are probably strong. A certain amount of stress, it turns out, is also beneficial to memory―provided that it’s of the momentary, stimulating sort, rather than the prolonged, anxiety-provoking kind. This means that you are likely to remember where you stayed on your wedding night and the name of the doctor who delivered your first child. You’re also likely to remember events with a negative impact, such as where you were the day John F. Kennedy was shot or when 9/11 occurred. Sustained stress of a major kind, however, affects memory adversely, exposing the brain to high levels of hormones called glucocorticoids (interestingly, those hormones actually aid memory formation when released at lower levels).

One of my all-time favorite lines is the opening prologue sentence of L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” I have carried this statement around with me almost like a mantra ever since I first came upon it because it seems to express my ever-growing sense of disconnect from the experiences of my more youthful self with metaphorical precision: Did I really feel so enamored of that creep I was involved with for several years? Why was I so uncomfortable going into my office at The New Yorker, preferring to work at home on my own? Could I really have been that reclusive, or, more likely, was I scared of the mostly male spirit of camaraderie? It also seems to encapsulate the accumulating scientific evidence that links the recollection of memories with one’s emotional state in the present (how you feel now about a situation can influence the way you remember it). And that suggests that emotionally charged situations in general, whether good or bad, burn a stronger imprint in your brain.

For instance: I can’t seem to remember the rancorous details of my marriage―which was brief, but not that brief, lasting around four years―in any but the haziest fashion. Some of this amnesia must be intentional, having to do with the unhappiness that colors that period; another part of it undoubtedly stems from the passage of time itself, which has lent those once jarring experiences the quality of faded old photographs, capable of stirring up flickers of feeling rather than an intensity of emotion. I mean, I know I felt distraught already on my honeymoon, that I sat on a beach in front of our hotel on Maui and reckoned I had made a huge mistake. I can see myself there, in a black two-piece, my head stuck in a book, as my other half went waterskiing without me. But I can’t summon up the panicky state of my psyche in other than a gestural fashion. The links between cause and effect appear to have eroded over time.

Conversely, there are other memories that stand out in bold relief, as if they had been engraved forever in my brain tissue. These are often more lyrical moments, such as walking with my young daughter on the beach in Quogue, New York, the summer she was 4 or 5. I can still remember the flowered swimsuit she wore, the cozy house we stayed in, the feeling of contentment that came over me as my bare feet went into the hot sand. Then there is the night, going on a decade ago, that I went over to an ex-boyfriend’s apartment after a dinner party in hopes of luring him back. I can see it as vividly as if it had happened a week ago―the pumps I wore and the kind of haircut I sported. I don’t remember if we got together (we separated too many times for me to remember when we did or didn’t reattach), but I do remember that we made love standing up, against the wall, and that I felt like a sweaty, desperate character out of Last Tango in Paris.

Sometimes it seems as if our memories, in their contribution to our self- definition, make us more human―mark us out as different from our fellow mammals. And, indeed, without our memories, who would we be but eternally displaced creatures, seeking out familiar places and people to no avail? Without our memories, we would be doomed to an eternal state of nonrecognition, doing everything and meeting everyone for the first time. And although there is something sad about having to learn not to take one’s memory for granted, as I have these last few years, it has also made me appreciate the fact that if the past is a foreign country, it is only conditionally so. Here and there, after all, scattered across the landscape, are places where I left a mark: the streetlamp under which I had my first kiss; the restaurant where we gathered for my Bat Mitzvah dinner; the movie theater at which I met my mother the year she came down with lung cancer; the sunny island where my daughter and I shared a seafront cottage last winter and wanted to stay forever. My memories, inaccurate and slippery as they may be, give me the material with which to shape my life, envision for it something like a plot―a beginning, a middle, and the glimmers of an ending―and thereby make sense of all that is random and chaotic.