According to Google, a memory is “the faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information.” Each of us have our own constant experience, which is our consciousness.  It is known to be aware of very little of what is actually happening around us, even though we feel like we’re aware of a lot.

When we consciously recognize something, it has the possibility of becoming a memory. But it is fair to say that the vast majority of what we experience in life is not remembered, and what we remember is just a memory, which is a memory of a memory. Think for a second about what a memory is – it is our memory of what we remembered.  If we remembered something wrong or different than it was actually experienced, our memory is also wrong. Memories say nothing about what actually happened, they simply are recollections of what we recall, which is open to massive distortion.

Life & Memories

Our lives are memories. It is made up of things we remember.  Most things we don’t remember, but the things we do make up what we see as our life.  So, in essence, the more memories you have, the more of life you have.

Try to remember what you did on Tuesday 3 weeks ago.  If it was a normal day, odds are you’d have a very hard time remembering what you did, what you ate, etc. When we’re in a routine, our brains don’t choose to store those days as memories, because they aren’t unique and not worth remembering (typically aren’t critical to our survival, our enjoyment, etc.).  Instead, we remember things that were unique, gave us a lot of pleasure, were fun and exciting, or things which were really bad and tragic.  We’ve evolved to remember this way as it is a mechanism for survival which frees up our conscious mind to focus on that (habits work in similar ways).

Did you know long term memories are remembered from a 3rd person perspective? Try to imagine yourself as a child and you’ll likely picture yourself as if you were looking at yourself from another persons view.  However, short term memories are recalled in 1st person, as if we were experiencing ourselves.  This says a lot about where and how memories are stored, altered, and changed throughout time.

Subconscious Memories

We’ve known for awhile that our subconscious can also have a form of memory (nondeclarative memories).  We can be primed subconsciously which influences us consciously (modern advertising does a lot of this).  We can also dream subconsciously and later when we’re conscious recall the dream. This is fascinating to think about.

“…scientists generally divide memories broadly into two types: declarative and nondeclarative (sometimes referred to as explicit and implicit). Declarative memories are things you know you remember, like the color of your car, or what happened yesterday afternoon. Nondeclarative memories are the things you know unconsciously, like how to ride a bike or how to draw a shape while looking at it in a mirror (or what a word flashed rapidly across a computer screen means).”

“Psychologists make a further distinction between semantic memories, or memories for facts and concepts, and episodic memories, or memories of the experiences of our own lives. Recalling that I had eggs for breakfast this morning would be an episodic memory. Knowing that breakfast is the first meal of the day is semantic memory. Episodic memories are located in time and space: They have a where and a when attached to them. Semantic memories are located outside of time and space, as free-flowing pieces of knowledge. (From “Moonwalking with Einstein“)

Last year, I wrote an article on how we’re living in a age far beyond our comprehension, inspired by realizing how much our subconscious dictates what we do in lives. Our lives are the things we do repetitively, which is mostly done subconsciously. It’s worth reading to learn more about how and why this is, and how priming works.

Time & Memories

Memories allow us to mark the passage of time. Without them, there isn’t a concept of time. The more marks you have throughout the passage of time, the more filled your life seems.  If a month goes by without a unique moment (pleasure, tragady, etc.), in the future you won’t remember that month anymore than a date on the calendar.  If you think back through the year 2005, unless it was an especially unique year, you likely won’t be able to remember an event from every month of that year, if even a few events at all.

In 1962, professor Michel Siffre wanted to test how memories affect time perception. The professor lived in complete isolation in a cave for 2 months, with no light so he couldn’t see the sun and the passing of each day, no clock, and no calendar.  His plan was to spend 2 months in the cave, and his colleagues would come get him when 2 months had passed.  He slept and ate only when his body told him to as he looked to discover how the natural rhythms of life would be affected without “time”.

What he discovered was fascinating – because there were no memories to mark time (everything in the cave looked the same, and each passing day was more or less the same), he thought only 1 month had passed when his colleagues came to tell him that 2 months had passed.  His days melted into each other, each indistinguishable from one another.  He was even unable to remember what happened even the day before, because his perception of time was almost completely gone. His perception of time had been compressed in half – 2 months seemed like 1.

The big takeaway here is that making memories anchors time, and makes time seem slower as it lengthens the perception of time.  With no memories, there are no anchors and our perception of time becomes skewed.

The Most Forgetful Person in the World

In the book “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer, Foer discusses the sport of competitive memory, and provides some insight into the science of memory.  He discusses an amnesiac, “EP”,  who can’t remember anything past short term memory, and also can’t form new memories.  Since his twenties he’s been this way, and for 40+ years he’s woke up seemingly meeting his wife for the first time each day. For the 15 seconds or so that his short term memory works, he can talk, but as soon as he gets distracted, the previous memory is vanished forever. I recall hearing about EP originally in “The Power of Habit“, a highly recommended read.

“EP has two types of amnesia — anterograde, which means he can’t form new memories, and retrograde, which means he can’t recall old memories either, at least not since about 1950.”

“Without a memory, EP has fallen completely out of time. he has no stream of consciousness, just droplets that immediately evaporate. If you were to take the watch off his wrist — or, more cruelly, change the time — he’d be completely lost. Trapped in this limbo of an eternal present, between a past he can’t remember and a future he can’t contemplate, he lives a sedentary life, completely free from worry. In his chronic forgetfulness, EP has achieved a kind of pathological enlightenment, a perverted vision of the Buddhist ideal of living entirely in the present.”

Without time, there would be no need for a memory. But without a memory, would there be such a thing as time? I don’t mean time in the sense that, say, physicists speak of it: the fourth dimension, the independent variable, the quantity that compresses when you approach the speed of light. I mean psychological time, the tempo at which we experience life’s passage. Time as a mental construct.”

The connection between time and memory is very prevalent, though many don’t consider how connected time and memory are.  It is worth thinking about more.

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. “If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next — and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.”

Life seems to speed up as we get older for 2 reasons:

  1. Because life gets less memorable as we get older. “If to remember is to be human, then remembering more means being more human.
  2. Because we’re consciously more distracted by our expanding awareness, allowing time to pass without consciously thinking about it or creating firm memories.

“Like the proverbial tree that falls without anyone hearing it, can an experience that isn’t remembered be meaningfully said to have happened at all? Socrates thought the unexamined life was not worth living. How much more so the unremembered life?”

Foer goes on to say: “I’m working on expanding subjective time so that it feels like I live longer … The idea is to avoid that feeling you have when you get to the end of the year and feel like, where the hell did that go?” said Ed Cooke (World Memory Competitor), “And how are you going to do that?” I asked. “By remembering more. By providing my life with more chronological landmarks. By making myself more aware of time’s passage.

“Our subjective experience of time is highly variable. We all know that days can pass like weeks and months can feel like years, and that the opposite can be just as true: a month or year can zoom by in what feels like no time at all. Our lives are structured by our memories of events.”

A meaningful relationship between two people cannot sustain itself only in the present tense.
Josh Foer

“One of the many mysteries of memory is why an amnesic like EP should be able to remember when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima but not the much more recent fall of the Berlin Wall. For some unknown reason, it’s the most recent memories that blur first in most amnesics, while distant memories retain their clarity. This phenomenon is known as Ribot’s Law, after the nineteenth-century French psychologist who first noted it, and it’s a pattern found also in Alzheimer’s patients. It suggests something profound: that our memories are not static. Somehow, as memories age, their complexion changes. Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged.”

now more than ever, as a the role of memory in culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are.
Josh Foer in Moonwalking with Einstein

It is absolutely fascinating – the fact that every thing that happens to us becomes a memory, and how we recall them is how we recall our lives. It is interesting to think about. What we remember is just a memory of what we remember, and is often skewed from what really happened.

“Our working memories serve a critical role as a filter between our perception of the world and our long-term memory of it.  In fact, dividing memory between short-term and long-term stores is such a savvy way of managing information that most computers are built around the same model” (that our brains are known to use).

Conclusion

For the past 10 years or so since I realized how time perception changes as we get older, I’ve been curious about how we form memories, how to remember memories and if they’re accurate, how to improve memory and push its limits, and how we make the most of our time.  I remember as a child sitting and watching the clock when I wanted to leave the classroom and that always seemed to slow things down.  As I’ve become older, more distracted and less willing to sit and watch a clock in my persuit to slow down time, I’ve more and more realized how quickly time does seem to pass, and how short our lives really are.

The fact that our lives are short is perhaps a good thing, because it hopefully motivates us to make the most of the time we have here, enjoy the things in front of us, change the things we don’t enjoy, and improve each day to make our lives the best that we possibly can.  But just being happy and enjoying yourself isn’t enough, I think it each of our responsibilities to contribute to better lives for future generations, just as past generations have given us privileges that we get to enjoy today, like the ability to read this from the other side of the world.

Enjoy life, make memories, improve memories, and help others create memories. If our life is a timeline of memories, the way to have more of life is to create more memories.