It never ceases to amaze me how the brain can choose to delete whole, entire memories. For example, if an event is too traumatic. Or if it is insignificant and meaningless.
A horrific accident, inconceivable abuse, extreme distress. The file is too hard to process, so the brain simply wipes it. A survival technique that leaves the individual in a state of ignorant bliss. Free from haunting flashbacks and free from crippling fears.
Earlier this year, I was in a uni tutorial with this guy (recommended reading) who somehow survived falling off a five-storey building, landing on a spiked fence and breaking his neck in multiple places. He has no memory leading up to the fall and only remembers waking up months later.
It’s incredible that he survived and recovered. It’s also incredible that his brain has built it’s own barrier around the days and weeks that are simply too traumatic to recall – and proceeded to blank them out. Waking up in a sound mind, in a stable condition and surrounded by loved-ones seems a very safe time for his memory to finally kick back into action.
Not unlike video editing. Mark an “in” point. Mark an “out” point. Press Delete.
Even in the day-to-day, our brains are beautifully efficient in selecting exactly what it chooses to remember. Watch this short clip – it blew my mind.
The implication is that our brains are programmed to interpret meaning, rather than filling up on peripheral, meaningless details. Which is really a wondrous thing because no one gives a shit what your co-worker was wearing on Monday last week. (Although not so advantageous when you are an eyewitness to a crime and you are called upon to remember precisely such details. In all likelihood, the colour of an armed robber’s jumper is not what your brain thought important to register at the time… but that’s a whole other issue).
Imagine now, in the space of a single day, the countless details you have seen with your very own eyes, processed with your brain and then simply dumped for being insignificant. Details that don’t impact the overall narrative. Millions and millions of details.
Imagine all the things that have happened, that you’ve seen, that you’ve done – and you just don’t remember.
Conversely, there are some memories that would be much better forgotten. Yet no matter how hard you try to erase them, they remain filed away, only to reappear unbidden.
But in the end, our memories cannot be trusted. As mere humans, we are prone to encoding memories inaccurately. Skewed, due our personal perceptions, our unconscious biases, our ego, the lighting, our desire for meaning, our expectations. Even if a memory is encoded accurately, we tend to fiddle with it, tweak it, when it is reconstructed years later. Each time we bring it back out, we alter it ever so slightly, before putting it away again.
And that’s all a little spine-tingling, because what are we, if not for our memories?