What We Remember, What We Forget

What We Remember, What We Forget

My home for a few years in high school. My friend Brad took the photo during our high school reunion weekend.

I’m curious about what people remember and why.

I don’t have a fantastic memory of anything before…yesterday.

In fact, earlier this week I connected on Facebook with a high school friend. Do you remember… ? Nope, don’t remember that. How about… ? Nope, don’t remember that either.

Another high school friend, Brad, remembers many details about me from high school that I can’t remember. Last year, over dinner with Brad and his wife Martha (another high school friend), I enjoyed hearing stories for what seemed like the first time. (Really, I did that? I said that?)

My daughter Cami has an astounding memory. She memorized 34 digits of Pi for school a few months ago and she can still recite them pretty reliably. She remembers many poems we memorized a few years ago when we still did school at home.

Sometimes I remember things I’d rather forget: hurt feelings, bad days.

And sometimes I forget things I desperately want to remember.

What I can remember seems random, sometimes.

I remember the date of my first prom (May 9th.) I remember the way my first daughter, only hours old, stretched her arm around mine for our first hug.

I have a theory about memory, completely derived from my own experience, not at all scientific.

Memory needs a scaffolding.

I’ve often thought many of my memory gaps exist because I have moved so much in my life.

When you stay in one place, you revisit the places of the past regularly. You might drive past your elementary school every week or run into your former classmates at the grocery store. Seeing those familiar places and people refreshes your memory. You see places — and people — in layers: who or what they are now, what they were before, and all the versions in between.

When you spend time with old friends, you retell the old stories. I fill in the details I remember. When you add yours, the picture is more complete.

Places, people and stories brought from the past into the future become a scaffolding that supports our memories.

When you move a lot, you move on to new places and make new friends. You push aside the old stories to make room for new ones. Unless you are intentional about recalling friends, places, and stories from the past, those memories can fade quickly.

In some ways, we can also choose what to remember. To remember, we can repeat, revisit, retell, replay, re-imagine.

We can choose to write things down, record video, and take photos to refer to later. In the absence of old friends and familiar places, those notes, videos, and photos can become the scaffolding of our memories.

Tell me something! What do you remember? Do you have a good memory of the people, places, and stories of your past? What scaffolding supports your memories? What do you most want to remember?

Filed As:  memory, Martha Mills

About Becky Robinson

I am the owner of Weaving Influence and the leader of the Weaving Influence team. We help authors and thought leaders grow their online influence. I am also a wife and mom of three daughters, and I enjoy running, reading, writing, a good cup of coffee, and dark chocolate.

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What People Are Saying

  • Our memory needs a scaffolding – I love that! It matches my experience. Journaling is a great way to remember for me. I wrote a letter to my daughter after she was born to tell her what I was thinking and feeling and what my life was like at that moment in time. I didn’t want to forget the magic of that time and knew I would. I don’t remember many details at all from my childhood so we choose stories to keep telling our daughter – a kind of scaffolding – so she remembers. Perhaps thats why storytellers were so incredibly revered in the time before the written word – so we could remember the tales that shaped our lives.

    Wonderful post Becky!

  • Memory is a funny thing and we’ve learned just how funny it is over the last two or three decades. We used to believe that “eyewitness” testimony was thoroughly reliable. Nope. It’s easy to influence with the questions you ask about it. And we’ve learned that we have multiple paths to the same memory and that every re-telling of a story changes our memory of it. “Scaffolding” turns out to be a very effective metaphor because we do need things to attach memories to. We’ve also learned about the different effects of emotion on memory and memory formation. But that wasn’t the question you asked.

    I remember some things and not others. For example, I had many teachers in elementary school, but I only remember three of them and two of those are from my last two years in primary school. I remember playing pick-up sticks on under the table in a dark dining room with my great-uncle, but I don’t remember what he looked like. Smell memories are strong like the smell of church. My daughters link “dryer smell” to my mother because when they were little she would tell them stories while she folded laundry.

  • I used to worry that I could not remember much of my childhood and early adult years. On the other hand I can remember names and phone numbers of clients that I haven’t seen in many years. I believe that there is some sort of selection process as to our memory priorities. I saw an old friend recently who shared an experience with me when we were about eighteen. For him it was life-changing whereas I had no recollection at all of the event. Again a case of priorities?

    My father had Alzheimer’s and lived with us for several years. He was able to remember so many details of his childhood and early adult years but couldn’t remember the current day, time or what he had done from moment to moment. So now I don’t worry when I can’t recall something that happened forty years ago. I do get a little panicky however when I can’t remember where I put my car keys for the fourth time in the day.

  • I always marvel at how people can remember detailed dates of events from their childhood with such clarity and precision. I remember things in blocks of time, based on geography. When I lived here, when I lived there, etc. My memories are also tied to smells, sounds and tastes. Songs and food, in particular, can transport me back in time in an instant. I believe our hearts and minds are selective about what we recall, and our own experience of a person/place/event is just that – our own experience, not necessarily interpreted the same by someone else.

    Thanks for sharing, Becky.

  • Awesome Post!

    I feel each one of us has a journal of memories deep within us.

    There are memories we remember and memories we want to forget. Some are even written in permanent ink. (ugh)

    I truly believe -It is up to us to create our inner journal of memories. Our daily thoughts, actions, and desires are creating our recordings in our inner journal. How we contribute to these memories matters.

    Today I will pause and think of memories I am in printing in my inner journal.

    Becky, your true giftedness is in your thought provoking and insightful posts that make me think on a deep level.
    Thank you.
    Lolly

  • In the opening monologue of the movie “While You Were Sleeping,” Sandra Bullock’s character, Lucy is reminiscing about her father. She says something about her father believing it’s important for parents to tuck memories in their children’s pockets. I’ve always embraced that idea–and have tried to tuck good memories in my children’s pockets.
    Another thought: You can’t insist that someone have the same memories you do. You just can’t. It won’t happen, no matter how many times you say, “But don’t you remember . . .? Come on, you were there!!”
    Sometimes memories can be divisive.
    Enough said.

  • I remember the house in this photo, and my dear friend Becky who lived in that house. When she moved away, I was certain I’d never see her again. But I never forgot her.

    Enter the wonderful world of social media.

    When we first reconnected after that long absence, I was surprised to learn I’d become one of Becky’s “legendary” people – the ones who become part of the stories she passes on to others. I don’t feel like I did anything to deserve it, really… I’m just me. But apparently she never forgot me either.

    Here we are, quite a few years after she lived in that house… definitely older, perhaps wiser, but still friends. Our friendship survived both the years and the distance. And if anything has been the scaffolding for the memories I have of this remarkable woman, that friendship has been it.

    It’s truly been an honor and a pleasure.

  • My parents used to go from church to church telling the story of our experiences living as missionaries in another country. I still remember the way the dust particles used to float in the beam of light from the projector up to the screen as my dad presented each slide. Then the projector would gradually work its way around the circle of pictures.

    Even though I didn’t like feeling as though I were a “show-and- tell” project, I miss the days of knowing that other people knew something of where I came from and the life we lived. There are very few people who share these memories with me now. Most people think of me as a typical midwestern girl.

    Passing these memories on to my children has been a bit challenging, but I’m always looking for opportunities to make the connection for them.

  • Wow! Your words have a way of tapping into feelings that I find difficult to express at times.

    I feel exactly the same way you. I have always wondered why I dont recall incidents from the past unlike my wife who recalls a lot of detail, her childhood, he school incidents, her good and bad days from the past… my mistakes (well, thats something else altogether :))

    I believe it is due to the changes in some lives and the frequency of it that we tend to overwrite old memories with new ones. But I am glad I am not the only one who feels that way.

  • I googled “Why can’t I remember my high school friends” and your page came up. I’m so glad I found it. I was prompted to do this because yesterday I was in the small grocery store in my town and this man started talking to me as if he knew me for years! I had no idea who he was. He was talking about 1985, I was dating my husband at the time and he told me a story about how his then girlfriend hit my car and I had gotten out and started yelling at her and my husband (then boyfriend) got out of the car and told me to calm down, that it didn’t hurt my car, only hers. I had NO recollection of this at all! I didn’t even know this guys name. I came home and found he had a facebook page attached to another friend of mine. I recognized his face. Then I recognized his name, but still have not one memory of hanging around with him at all. It was scary. This isn’t the first time this has happened and I’m wondering what’s wrong with my memory. Thanks for the great article! It makes sense.

    • Sherri,

      Thanks for sharing your story. I am really glad to know that I am not the only one who experiences this. The funny thing about Facebook is that it reconnects us with people who may hold memories of us that we have long since forgotten. I am not sure… is it a good thing, or a bad thing?

      I hope you’ll return to this blog! And I am glad that Google helped you find me.

      Becky

  • What you store in your memory and what you do not store in your memory is determined by your nature.

  • “Sometimes I remember things I’d rather forget: hurt feelings, bad days.”

    This is how the memory portion of the brain works, the more emotional (crying/laughing uncontrollably, arguing to levels you’ve never done before) you get, the more it is etched in your memory.

    The neurologist who assisted us with my mother’s alzheimer made this statement. That explained why the only things my mother could remember several days later, was when she got so riled up about a certain experience that day, either arguing with someone or crying so hard watching a movie, etc.

    Your emotions have a big hold on your memory. Like vacations.

    The thing people remember most at the end of their lives are the vacations they took. It’s because they were so different from their daily grind. The same way with out of the norm emotions. Hope this helped.

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