Monday, January 25, 2021

I Remember Everything

Memory can be a troubling thing, depending on how you look at it.

I was at a friend's house the other day.  They were both retired school teachers, which used to represent the demographic here on the island.  That is changing.  Instead of retirees, we are getting more and more wealthy Georgians who are buying vacation homes here, and then driving six hours from Atlanta to visit - one weekend a month.  We'll see how long that lasts.

Anyway, one of the couple taught second grade, and I told him of my vivid memories of those years.  I could remember the name of the second grade teacher (Mrs. Hornkel) and the "SRA Reading Tests" we took out of on a roll-around open-topped file cabinet.  The laminated cards started with Aqua and then went up on color all the way to gold and platinum.  Me and another boy - also named Robert - raced through the cards, although he was always one card ahead of me.   Some of the other kids never went beyond Aqua.   I remember we planted seeds in little Dixie cups and put them on the window sill and watched in wonderment as they germinated and grew.  We built a diorama for our plastic dinosaurs (something boys still collect in the second grade).  And I had a crush on a girl - I forget her name - with whom I was competing for with another boy.   I remember also we studied subtraction as well as addition.  I didn't like subtraction, so I changed the minus signs to plus signs, which made the problems easier.  Destined to be a lawyer.

So I told my friend not even half of this, and he said, "You remember all that?" which I think scared him, as he assumed that, as a second grade teacher, whatever he imparted to his students, good or bad, was quickly forgotten within a few years.

But memory is like that - maybe more for some than others.  I meet a lot of people who claim to have few or no memories of their childhood.  I meet gay men and ask them when they knew they were gay - and most claim no memory before age 18.  It is like they woke up one day and decided to be homosexual.   But I suspect that was not the case - they just don't remember, or choose to remember what they felt from years before.

Maybe I am abnormal in that I remember so much.  Or maybe I remember a lot less than others.  The weird thing is, I remember things I would rather forget, and then important things - things I should remember - I forget.  I was never able to memorize the multiplication tables, and trig identities were memorized long enough to pass the test, and then quickly forgotten (why memorize something you can look up in a book?  I guess that is my brain's logic in this).

The problem for most of us, is that we remember awkward things we said or did, or bad things that happened, twice as much as good things. My Father, before he succumbed to dementia, said, "remember the good times!" which was also the mantra of Tony Soprano, both of whom created a lot of bad times for themselves and others, which may be why they adopted that motto.

The problem is, the human brain is programmed to remember bad things at a rate twice that of good things.   We remember putting our hands on the hot stove, because remembering that is a survival skill.  Remembering pleasant times or pleasant experiences isn't necessary for the brain, as these experiences reinforce themselves.  You don't have to "remember" that sex is pleasurable or that food tastes good - your brain automatically reinforces this.

So while I remember these fond memories of second grade, I also remember being sent to the principal's office as well as awkward and embarrassing moments as well - as well as strange and bizarre things from my childhood.  Repeating the mantra "remember the good times" doesn't get these out of my head, it only serves to shame me for remembering them.   Gee, Dad, thanks again!

I kid.  He did the best he could, and being a parent is no Swiss picnic.  No doubt, like most parents, he got halfway into the deal and thought, "Is this what I thought it would be?   I was hoping to raise a fine family and here I am stuck with these spastic, ungrateful, spoiled monsters!"   I suppose it happens with every generation.

I like to read comics online, and it surprises me - but doesn't surprise me - that so many of them mention this effect.   People wake up in the middle of the night, antagonized by their own brain remembering some awkward thing they said or did a decade ago.   Why do our brains turn on us this way?  And you would think, as you got older and your brain cells die off, you would remember less and less - and perhaps you do, but the evil brain preserves only the worst of memories.  Perhaps.

I read somewhere that younger people have a better capacity for memorization, and that as you get older, your memory gets worse.  But that may be only with regard to short-term memory.  The point of the article I read was that older people are not necessarily "wiser" by dint of experience, only that since their short-term memory is smaller, they tend to triage facts when considering a problem.   Thus, to a younger person, a problem seems overwhelming as there is a panoply of facts to consider.  The older person sees only two or three relevant facts, and then can more easily make a decision.

Maybe this shrinking of short-term memory is what causes older people to remember more long-term things.  As my Dad got older, he remarked how vivid memories from his childhood became suddenly clear - things he had not "remembered" for decades were like they happened last week.  Perhaps it was a synapse in his brain firing off one last time - "here, look at this before it is long gone!"   But in his old age, he started to almost obsess about things from his childhood - things he never told us about before.  And weirdly enough, in his obituary (which he wrote) nearly half of it encompasses things he did before his 21st birthday.  The whole getting married and having kids and working for 40 years and whatnot were relegated to a paragraph.  How odd.

I am not sure what got me started on this, only that when I mentioned these details from the second grade, the look of fear on my friend's face was kind of funny - as if he just realized that hundreds upon hundreds of children he taught over the decades had similar memories of him, and that some offhand comment or gesture he made back then may have had some profound effect on someone's life - and that scared him to death.  It was kind of funny, actually.  I mean, maybe not for him.

Memory is a funny thing.  And I think our actual memories are often colored and clouded by our own minds.  We remember something and like a DRAM chip cycling itself, re-write that memory, only this time, perhaps slightly different than before. This is one reason why "eyewitness testimony" is so unreliable - people's memories are a fragile thing, and often after-the-fact, we "remember" things that didn't quite happen.

Maybe also that is why my Dad - and Uncle Tone - said "remember the good times" as perhaps when these memories are dredged up and reviewed and the re-stored by the brain, they can be altered to highlight the good parts and attenuate the bad.   Perhaps.

I guess the only thing I take away from this is, it is pretty normal to remember the awkward moments, and to not worry about it too much.  It is just some stupid survival skill your brain has, and probably a sign that you have above-average intelligence.   Like I noted before, you never hear about rednecks worrying about things they did in past.  It is only smart folks who cripple their own brains this way, often fogging brilliant minds with drugs and alcohol, trying to "forget" things that really make no difference in their lives, moving forward.

I remember everything.  It could be a curse, if you let it be one.