I think belief about the plasticity of memory (and therefore it’s unreliability) has led to me to try to document things in photograph and video more meticulously. The following excerpt is from Jonathan Franzen’s My Father’s Brain. It’s greatly affected my view on memory and rememory (to borrow Toni Morrison’s word) and how we shape our own memories (consciously and unconsciously). Copyright infringement not intended.
My clearest memories of that February morning are visual and spatial: the yellow Mr. Goodbar, my shift from living room to bedroom, the late-morning light of a season as far from the winter solstice as from spring. I’m aware, however, that even these memories aren’t to be trusted. According to the latest theories, which are based on a wealth of neurological and psychological research in the last few decades, the brain is not an album in which memories are stored discretely like unchanging photographs. Instead, a memory is, in the phrase of the psychologist Daniel L. Schacter, a “temporary constellation” of activity-a necessarily approximate excitation of neural circuits that bind a set of sensory images and semantic data into the momentary sensation of a remembered whole. These images and data are seldom the exclusive property of one particular memory. Indeed, even as my experience on that Valentine’s morning was unfolding, my brain was relying on preexisting categories of “red” and “heart” and “Mr. Goodbar”; the gray sky in my windows was familiar from a thousand other winter mornings; and I already had millions of neurons devoted to a picture of my mother-her stinginess with postage, her romantic attachments to her children, her lingering anger toward my father, her weird lack of tact, and so on. What my memory of that morning therefore consists of, according to the latest models, is a set of hardwired neuronal connections among the pertinent regions of the brain, and a predisposition for the entire constellation to light up-chemically, electrically-when any one part of the circuit is stimulated. Speak the words “Mr. Goodbar” and ask me to free-associate, and if I don’t say “Diane Keaton” I will surely say “brain autopsy.”
My Valentine’s memory would work this way even if I were dredging it up now for the first time ever. But the fact is that I’ve re-remembered that February morning countless times since then. I’ve told the story to my brothers. I’ve offered it as an Outrageous Mother Incident to friends of mine who enjoy that kind of thing. I’ve even, shameful to report, told people I hardly know at all. Each succeeding recollection and retelling reinforces the constellation of images and knowledge that constitute the memory. At the cellular level, according to neuroscientists, I’m burning the memory in a little deeper each time, strengthening the dendritic connections among its components, further encouraging the firing of that specific set of synapses. One of the great adaptive virtues of our brains, the feature that makes our gray matter so much smarter than any machine yet devised (my laptop’s cluttered hard drive or a World Wide Web that insists on recalling, in pellucid detail, a “Beverly Hills 90210” fan site last updated on 11/20/98), is our ability to forget almost everything that has ever happened to us. I retain general, largely categorical memories of the past (a year spent in Spain; various visits to Indian restaurants on East Sixth Street) but relatively few specific, episodic memories. Those memories that I do retain I tend to revisit and, thereby, strengthen. They become-morphologically, electrochemically-part of the architecture of my brain.