Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Strange Thing

Memory is a strange thing.
In addition to being error-prone and subject to revision it’s also likely to just plain fail at various points along the way until it eventually stops working entirely.
And yet, ultimately, our memories are all that we really have.
Okay, this is starting off on a more depressing note than I’d ended.
Let’s try again.
Memory is a strange thing.
More to the point, the way memories form and how it chooses what to keep and what to discard can be at times utterly baffling.
This was brought to the forefront of my mind by a discussion in a comment thread over at Slacktivist in which someone made a reference to people who couldn’t remember the dates of World War II even though he actually lived through them.  (Worse, the man in question was a high school teacher who taught US History.  The appalling nature of this was the point of the comment, which is not something I missed, even though it led my brain to follow a particular train of thought.)
It led me to wonder how about the way memories form, particularly in terms of events that will later prove to be of historical significance.  Certain events and even specific periods of time, can frequently – though not always, of course – be recognized as being “historic” even while they’re happening.
JFK’s assassination, for example, was an event that people immediately recognized as being one for the history books.
That’s a particularly cogent example, as it’s an event that’s often cited, for those alive at the time, as a day on which everyone remembers exactly what he or she was doing when the news broke.   People remember – often so vividly that it “seems like it was only yesterday” – exactly how they felt upon hearing the news, they remember seeing Walter Cronkite lose his professional composure, what the weather was like, who they were with, and so on.
I would wager, however, that there are a fair number of people who, despite the crystal clarity of these memories don’t remember the actual date on which it occurred.
I could be wrong on this, of course, given that the anniversary of that date is generally noted rather prominently in the media when it occurs, but the point I’m eventually going to get to would still stand, I think.  For the purposes of this line of thought you can substitute some other historical event that does not get a similar amount of attention when its anniversary comes around, or one that is perhaps slightly less emotionally charged.
In any case, given that I wouldn’t be born until nearly a decade later, I obviously have no personal recollections of that day.  But I do remember the date.
The same thing goes for, say, the attack on Pearl Harbor, or D-Day, or…well, a whole host of significant dates that I memorized in school or otherwise committed to memory as the result of my brain’s – inconsistent – skill at capturing and retaining such information.
What I’m getting at is that there seems to be a difference in the way our memories hold onto information, and what information they hold on to, based on whether it’s something that we encounter as a simple fact of history or if it’s something we actually experienced.
Let’s consider an example of an event that I lived through personally, one that is often cited, like JFK’s assassination, as one of those “you’ll always remember exactly where you were when it happened” events, the Challenger disaster.
As a matter of fact, I do remember where I was and what I was doing when it happened, and I remember it very clearly.
I was in school, and it was during lunch hour.  I had walked from one classroom – known as the “Little Room” - where some kids were playing a typing game on one of the school’s Commodore 64 computers and into the other classroom –  the “Big Room” – to see what people were doing on that computer.
When the school purchased the second Commodore 64, they didn’t buy a monitor for it.  The existing computer and accompanying monitor were moved to the Little Room, while in the Big Room we hooked up the computer to the school’s tiny black and white TV.  The display of the computer’s signal on the TV was terrible, with a lot of static and “snow,” making it comparable to trying to watch an actual TV channel using only rabbit ears for reception.
Which was, in fact, the only way we ever did watch the TV, as there was no aerial antenna hooked up, and certainly no cable.
In any case, as I walked towards the group huddled around the tiny screen, I couldn’t tell that they were watching “breaking news” on Channel 6, and assumed that they were playing some new game.  As I approached, a girl – Brandie Snell – told me, “The space shuttle blew up.”
Initially I thought that she was explaining the concept of the game that was being played, and then it occurred to me, particularly as I looked at the ashen complexion and stunned expression of our Principal – Mr. Morehouse – as he stared blankly at the screen that they were actually watching live TV, and the horrible truth sunk in.
As I said, I remember all of this very clearly, as well as all sorts of other details that don’t relate to the event itself, such as the names of those present, particular qualities of their personalities, my own personal feelings about them, and so on.  I even remember remembering watching the first space shuttle launch on that very same TV in that very same room years earlier.
What I don’t remember?  The date.
I have since looked it up, of course, and I can say that I did at least remember the year and the month – I also recall that it happened shortly before my grandmother died – but I didn’t remember the specific date.
I don’t know what, if anything, that actually means, or what it says about memory and the differences between the experiential formation of memories and those formed through rote memorization, but I do know this:  memory is a strange thing.


Anonymous said...

That was awesome, well written and I think you could turn it into a nice fourth of July article to submit to a few magazines.

I don't remember the shuttle explosion, I think I was a little too young to understand the meaning.

One thing I do know, is that we all will remember 9/11. I bet it's because it's date is the name of the event. It's not known as al-Qaeda Attacks America.

On 9/11 my new mother-in-law called me, waking me up (I worked night shifts at the AOL call center in Ogden), to explain why she was sent home from IRS for the day. She instructed me to turn on the TV, because she had no words to describe what was happening. I turned on the TV and cried as I watched footage of planes crashing into the two towers. I cried, not because I knew anyone affected, but because it hurt so bad I had no other way to express myself. I was glad Casey was at work and not around to witness my melt down. After that morning my eyes and ears were glued to CNN. Every break I had at work I would go into the cafeteria and watch as the world tried to answer the why, how, and who. It took me about two months before I could stop obsessively reloading awaiting for the 'breaking news' banner. We sent what money we could to the Red Cross.

That date I won't forget ever.

Jon-Paul Maki said...

I thought about calling out 9/11 as something of an outlier, as the events of that date have become inextricably linked with the date itself. I think that, in part, that happened because "9/11" is easy to remember - of course, as you mention, the events of that day are impossible to forget - in a way that say, 1/28 (Challenger disaster) is not. After all, "911" was already encoded in our memories prior to 2001 thanks to the emergency services number.
I suspect - and I don't want to see this proven, obviously - that if something similarly historic happened on April 11th we would likely remember that date - 4/11 - as well, for much the same reason.
Also, thanks for the comment/praise and for sharing your memories.