The Memory That Wasn’t
While our memory, and the art of collecting the information served to us, is beautiful in its complexity and hierarchical structure of encoding, storage, and retrieval - the art of forgetting these memories is equally alluring in its own mysterious seemingly random manner. The information that we perceive in our day to day lives goes in to our memory through a simple process of encoding, being the mental interpretation of our senses, storing the memories in our brain and retrieving these memories if needed. While this all sounds very logical, something often goes wrong in our imperfect brains between these seemingly simple steps.
Forgetting is the process of memory loss. There are several explanations that have been proposed to describe this phenomenon. Some of these explanations chalk it up to difficulties in encoding, while others emphasize a flaw in storage or retrieval.
For multiple reason our earliest memories have often been shaped, distorted, created, or erased. The most obvious explanation for this is the decay theory. This is constantly happening to every memory we have. It maintains that with time and disuse, the physical memory trace in the nervous system fades away. However at this young age our memories are easily shaped and distorted by other influences. Our minds are so open to accepting anything they are fed.
One such example of this was when I was 6 years old. Every family has those stories that get told over and over again. At social gatherings, whether its friends, family, or strangers. One particular story known as “The Collar Bone Story” in my family was about my older, by 6 years, brother. The story goes that when he was 4, he would sit upside down in our rocking chair while, well, rocking. My parents thought it was a riot, until he did a backwards upside down summersault. Three hours of endless crying commenced, pain relievers were distributed, and he finally feel asleep, only to wake the house up again in the middle of night with blood curdling screeches. At this point he was rushed to the emergency room where it was made aware that he had broken his collar bone. So there you have it, “The Collar Bone Story”.
As you can imagine, by the time I hit 6 or 7, I had heard this story retold on countless occasions. Well, it was Christmas Eve, the family was gathered around the tree and some distant relative “had to hear ‘The Collar Bone Story’”. Me all googly eyed, wholly entranced by the glittering decorations and the sparkling lights on the tree, unwrapping the presents with my eyes, by chance, caught the story being told. Vivid pictures of our rocking chair, with my brother hanging upside down like a baboon and pulling a perfect backwards upside down summersault like an Olympic gymnast flashed through my head. Bursting in laughter I shouted, “I remember that!”. You would have thought everyone had just seen Santa Claus. The room went dead silent, with all eyes on me. If you have been doing your math up until this point you would know that 5, being his age at the time of the accident, minus 6, how many years my brother is older then me, equals, -1. That’s right, I was negative one year’s old when I was sitting on the carpet, of a house I had never lived, witnessing “The Collar Bone Story”.
To this day I have not lived that story down. At the time, being young and naïve, I had heard the story so many times before that I could vividly picture it in my imagination. So vividly in fact, that in a split moments mistake, I confused imagination with memory, at which point I made the dire mistake of saying that I remembered witnessing an event that I wasn’t even alive for. This confused my little mind for years. How could I remember an event when I wasn’t even alive? Maybe, I was in my mother womb? No, I already checked up on that one. Now, I like to entertain myself and pretend in my “wisdom” and “knowledge” that I can explain away my mistake of yore. Retroactive interference, which occurs when newly acquired information interferes with the ability to recall information learned at an earlier time. I had acquired the information of “The Collar Bone Story”. It had been pounded into my long-term memory, every minuet detail, through the years. As a result, it skewed my ability to remember events from years earlier. Yes, those two words, retroactive interference, solve my life-long dilemma. But I remember it.
February 15, 2006