On Memory

On Sept. 11, I blogged about visiting the chateau of La Rochefoucauld in France, recalling how my first glimpse of a chateau-like building in Europe (the stadhuis in Delft) reminded me of Disneyland. My wife read that blog posting and pointed out that it was not me who compared the stadhuis to Disneyland; it was my brother, when he visited us in the Netherlands. And it was not, in fact, the Delft stadhuis that prompted this comparison, but the stadhuis in Gouda. I looked at a picture online and realized she was right: It was definitely Gouda and not Delft that I was thinking of, and so it must have been my brother and not me to whom the Disneyland comparison first occurred.

Memory is a strange, unreliable beast. Physiologically, memories are created and retained by an intricate and ever-shifting net of firing neurons and crackling synapses distributed throughout the brain. Memory is not, as was previously thought, some vast cerebral warehouse filled with rows and rows of neatly ordered filing cabinets. It is rather more like a labyrinth, the twistings and turnings of which rearrange themselves completely each time something is experienced and recalled.

So memories are always shifting around in the brain, being tossed and jostled about like luggage in the luggage compartment of a particularly bumpy train. Reaching into your brain for a memory can be like reaching into the back of your closet for a long-lost shoe. You may have one particular piece of footwear in mind but, because the closet is so messy, you end up pulling out a variety of things (discarded belts, orphaned socks, dust balls of various shapes and sizes) before you alight upon the shoe you wanted to find.

Plus, we all have a tendency to improve our memories with time. That is not to say that we get better at remembering things, but we get better at making the things we “remember” resemble whatever it is we would like to remember at any given time. I, for example, was in need of a nice Disneyland comparison to make a point in the blog entry on La Rochefoucauld’s chateau. It made a much better story if I made the Disneyland remark myself, so in my memory I made it so. My wife has a much more accurate memory then I do; if she had not pointed out my error to me, I would have gone on for the rest of my life thinking that my first thought upon seeing the Delft stadhuis was: “It looks just like Disneyland!” Now, I know that is not so.

As Benjamin Disraeli said:

Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.

The difficulty is, learning to tell the difference between the two…