I outsource memory. I don’t trust mine. So, when I see something that inspires me, I reach reflexively for my phone. Snap. Screenshot. Store.
As I offloaded hundreds of images onto my desktop the other day, to de-bloat my phone, I saw how pointless this had been – all these things I’d wanted to sit with, to ponder, to mull over, were now part of the digital clutter cramming up my computer’s memory, instead of slowly integrating into my own. I was trusting the goods to a digital memory, neglecting to take into account that human memory is superior in so many respects – it edits, it compiles, it deletes. It doesn’t bother trying to retain everything. That’s just not necessary.
See, here’s the good news for you amnesiacs and absent-minded ones: Your forgetfulness is not a sign of your brain’s fallibility. It’s a sign of its incredible efficiency.
In 2015 and 2016, two Norwegian sisters, Dr Hilde Østby & Ylva Østby, an historian, and a neuroscientist, replicated a host of famous scientific experiments on memory, to see for themselves just how it works. They explored the workings of memory from a cellular level to a cultural level, discussing the research of a host of leading Norwegian and Canadian scientists. Their resulting book, Adventures in Memory: The Science and Secrets of Remembering and Forgetting has just been translated into English.
The book reveals memory to be a mysterious and fallible thing, something very variable between people and profoundly difficult to rely on. Yes, sleep deprivation (and parenthood) do a number on your memory. But it’s not as though memories are exact replicas of an experience anyway – instead, memories are a mix of fact and fiction, reconstructions of events, with the blanks filled in. “This is the brain’s way of being space efficient,” write the Østbys. “We don’t need to store everything we experience as exact film rolls.”
If you’re worried about propping up your memory, the Østbys add: don’t stress. It’s better to let your brain do its pruning, like a well-tended garden… On a cellular level, the brain is constantly filtering out unimportant events, or compiling them into one cumulative ball to be filed under “brushing the teeth” or “riding the bus”, where each individual occurrence is mashed up into a single cumulative memory of that experience.
Forgetfulness, they say, is underrated.
“Forgetting is our brains’ way of tidying up so that the memories that remain can stand out and shine. Most of what we experience disappears to make room in our brains for new, perhaps more important information. It’s how our memory remains flexible.”
And yet, I hate the idea of forgetting – funny things my kid has said, a tender moment, the punchline of a joke, childhood experiences that might somehow give me insight into my present pathologies – as if the disappearance of my memories will somehow erase me, too.
Hilda reassures me: people have lived functional and happy lives with very dysfunctional memories. For most healthy people, if an experience has emotional value, it sticks. If it’s novel, it sticks. Pro tip: “If you want to remember something, very carefully,” she laughs, “you should be naked in a public space. It’s so uncomfortable, you’ll remember everything.”
Echoes Ylva, “Things that are special, things you haven’t experienced before, or in the everyday, that is what you remember the most.”
And yet, I don’t trust myself. I want the back-up, the reassurance, that this is all being documented. (Ironically, experiments have shown that when we think there is a technological back-up, our memories don’t even bother activating. It’s when there isn’t a back-up option that our memories ante up.)
“Remembering gives us a sense of being in control and on top of things, but for most of us, this is an illusion. We all have some kind of scattered amnesia. We don’t have access to all of our past, we don’t have control of it, and that is the existential scary thing,” says Ylva.
So my fear of forgetting is probably actually my fear of death. My stockpile of screenshots, my hard drive full of photos, my box of newspaper clippings, is my fortress against the Reaper, and even though I know it won’t keep me alive, at least it will keep me well enough documented that I won’t be forgotten, right?
After I die, let’s face it, no one will trawl through those screenshots. The giant server farms will keep on humming, hosting the “cloud” memory of every single human trying to defy their own impermanence, but it’s through the small handful of stories that might be told about me that I will become a living memory, not in the troves of dusty data that I’ve buried all around the desert.
The most reliable form of memory, say the Østbys, is collective memory.
If you want to strengthen memory, make it a community thing.
“I believe memories are supposed to be collective,” says Hilde. “Together we can remember more than we can alone. Our stories, together, connect us to each other, keeping us within a shared reality.”
This insight makes me appreciate a witnessing ceremony I saw for the raising of the Welcome totem pole on the top of Whistler Mountain almost a decade ago. People attending the ceremony, elders, respected community members, were given a small token and called upon to be a witness, an act that I interpreted as a human-powered server back-up, appointing a dozen or more individuals to be memory-holders of the experience, keeping each other accountable, providing shared perspectives, logging the event into a collective story.
You’d think a memory is the most personal thing in the world, and yet, the best way to bring it to life, to keep it vibrant and enduring, is to share it. Not with the Cloud. But with a community.