What’s your earliest memory? I think mine is an incident in the lift on our way up to Granny and Granda’s flat. I was about four years old and was holding out my hands filled with coins that I’d been saving in my piggybank. It might have added up to around £3.96 or so. Mum tried to give me a five pound note in exchange and I howled the place down. I was very put out that she was giving me ONE thing in exchange for LOADS of things. Hardly fair was it?
Now I wonder if that memory is strong because Mum tells the story all the time? Family legends follow us around and even slightly tall tales can become embedded in our life stories until we completely believe they happened.
Memory is a complex mechanism and one that some psychologists have given their entire professional life to understand. The beginnings of discovery in 1953 of the hippocampus region in the brain came about (as these things tend to do) quite by accident. Surgeons had removed a section of H.M.’s brain in an attempt to help reduce epileptic fits. But when he woke up he was no longer able to form new memories. Each day was brand new and each loved one was a stranger.
Our brains work very hard to encode, store and then retrieve memories. I keep picturing the amazing Pixar film Inside Out when I imagine what’s going on in my head – all those lovely memories being filed and moved and coloured in a particular way. And the message that sad memories simply join happy ones is profound. They both make us who we are. They also provide us with a reservoir to dip into when required.
At the dentist last week (root canal work, I don’t want to talk about it) I purposely closed my eyes and skipped through wonderful memories of The Big Trip. I did the same thing in the claustrophobic confines of an MRI scanner last year. And the escape from reality worked. So well, in fact, that I wondered if the radiologist would look at the images on the screen and see my brain’s memory and sensory regions light up.
Like many of us I sometimes feel afraid about losing my memory (MS is an uncertain disease) because I know who I am, I know who I love and I remember, most of all, the happiest and the saddest of days that have made me the person I am. The brain is holding it all for me. They’re beyond precious, those memories. And I’ll treasure them.