Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Memory Bytes

Strangest thing
As we were navigating the border into New York state last weekend, I had a memory of having gone to an area around Niagara, in search of an address. I recalled that it had something to do with my application for a Nexus Pass, and I felt that Ponczka had been along, and that she’d been equipped with maps.
Ponczka could remember no such thing, and said so. “Why were we looking for this place?” she kept asking. And all I could do was repeat that it had something to do with the border. But neither of us could recall any event that was border related that led us to anywhere than the border itself. Aside from occasionally being redirected by a border guard to go into the station for “further investigation” for something like having “foreign food” (that’s another story!) border crossings were pretty routine. They didn’t involve driving up and down a road alongside a business park searching for an address.
This memory of mine made no sense. I had clear visual images of this very specific place, of looking for the address and finally finding it. I could recall details, like an underpass, patches of grass on a broken sidewalk, and street signs. But I had no memory at all of entering the place, or of what took place there. And I recalled clearly that all this took place during the day, despite that almost all of our border crossings take place after dark!
Finally, it came to me. A couple of weeks ago, I scheduled my interview to obtain a Nexus pass. And because I wasn’t familiar with the location, I went on Google maps to find it and to plan my trip. I employed the little green man avatar to get a street level view. And that was my memory.
My interview is weeks away. I’ve yet to visit the place in the flesh. But via my computer, I have actual, visual memories of this place, and of having negotiated this environment, clicking my way back and forth at will, swivelling the view, panning in and out. I even had a vague sense of purpose in being there. All in all, this was enough that it settled in my memory as an actual bodily experience. I even attached my constant travel companion Ponczka to the memory – though abstractly; I didn’t actually place her in these images, or put the maps in her hands.
How surprising, these adjustments of memory. None of this should surprise me. I’ve kept journals since age twenty, and they’ve given me many lessons in the creative power of memory. How many times have I had a clear, multiple sense memory of something that my journal has corrected. I might, for instance, remember being with Joan at a movie in September in New York. But my notes will tell me that I last say Joan in August in Boston, and the movie in New York was with Leslie. Often, there’s a kind of compacting that happens. Story lines, people, sequences get merged, much as a film adaptation will treat a massive novel. I learned long ago not to believe just because someone insists in all sincerity, “But I was there! I saw it with my own eyes”.
This Google memory is a new one for me. But I bet it’s not unusual. It’s surely something that will become increasingly common. Soon, we’ll all have memories of places we’ve never been, accomplishments we’ve never attempted, and, bitter-sweetly, of “beautiful lovers we never got the chance to kiss”. (Joni Mitchell)


  1. Wow!

    Memory is very tricky and pretty completely unreliable, if all you're after is facts. I remember in my 20s thinking that my sister was a, shall we say, embellisher of the truth, because she would remember events that I also clearly remembered, and she would recount whole scenarios that I swear never happened.

    When I read my old journals (started at 14, pretty much abandoned by 30 or so, with infrequent jottings since), I am sometimes shocked at how little I actually remember about most things. But then there are certain moments in my mind's eye that I can't forget. Where I was, and who said what, throughout the afternoon JFK got shot. The feeling of being a small child and lying on the grass in front of my grandmother's house in New Hampshire.

    1. Sorry for not acknowledging your comment earlier, Lucie. I enjoyed it, and actually thought I had responded because I thought about it quite a bit. There's another of those odd cognitive slips.
      My brother and I are like you and your sister, often having wildly different memories of things we did together. And we can both be pretty adamant. Lately, we share the added experience of disputing recollections with our father. We grew up thinking he had a flawless memory - he's always been able to rattle off the dates of events, and to recount details lost to the rest of us. Once evidence cropped up that even he could be mistaken, it was almost as though one of the pillars of family identity was fractured.
      I'm pretty sure that some of my oldest memories are not my own, but exist because I was told something over and over. How much of our past is merely imagined?