How Certain Is Your Memory?
March 2015
illustration

“Out of Memory”
© 

We drove for almost an hour and half in the Bangalore traffic, my stomach churning with anxiety and a sensation of nausea rising in my chest. I wondered whether my aunts would still be the same angry, expletive-screaming women I'd encountered the previous time I'd been to visit them. What would I say? How would they react? Would they even let me through the gate?

The house, my childhood home, stood exactly where it had almost four decades ago; a small, single storey bungalow in the midst of a sea-change of modern four and five storey buildings, which had sprung up all around the neighbourhood. My heart beating fast, I went in the gate and knocked on the door. When I saw the bright, smiling face of my younger aunt, who pulled me into a hug as soon as I stepped inside, it felt like years of history melted away in an instant.

My two maternal aunts, together with my grandmother, were the primary influences in my life until the age of seven. They set the rules and boundaries of what was safe and what was not, and once I moved to England, my mother adjusted these with parameters of her own.

During the time I grew into an adult, the relationship between my mother and her sisters deteriorated to the point where they stopped all communication, and rather than attempt to reconcile the different perspectives of their quarrels and upsets, I felt a natural loyalty to side with my mum, the person who was the constant in my life. My aunts were too far away (in India) to protest, and so both my mother's and my own memory of these conflicts amalgamated into the status quo.

Several recent experiments in the field of psychology have demonstrated that every time we recall a memory from the past, we actually alter it slightly. And the more often we recall it (e.g. the particular tendency we have to remember negative events that threaten our ‘survival’ or sense of ‘self’), the more the memory gets mixed up with other images and information we've read or been told. In addition, by choosing to recall a specific memory, we are putting focus on a small aspect of the whole picture and make it more important than the rest, thereby distorting it each time it's recalled. I recognise this very clearly, for example, in the novel I am currently writing, which is based on some of the events from my life. The story I have written is both fact and fiction, all mixed up, and yet when I talk about myself to others, some of the fictitious ‘memories’ feel so authentic in my mind that I am no longer certain if they really happened or not.

We might conclude that our memory is thus fragile and unreliable. However, the very nature of our ability to distort also means we can re-interpret and re-create ourselves. It gives us the possibility to accept that the past is over, including those events we cannot change, and that we do not need to ‘remember’ or stay attached to it. We have the freedom to ‘forget’ while still having the capacity to reinterpret our memories more constructively for the present and future choices we make in our relationships.

Unfortunately, with family, we are neither reasonable nor objective. If we were to halt the scenario in our mind for a moment, take a step back and imagine we are looking at a stranger's life rather than our own, we would see how twisted and insane our memories of old hurts have become. We imagine problems are insurmountable, unresolvable, yet objectively, there is nothing happening! We carry the problems in our heads, alone. And even when we have the courage to face the person involved, if they say they do not remember, we get even more upset. Why not instead accept the present reality as an opportunity for a new beginning, a gift to upgrade our outdated memory and create a new perspective? This is the power and ability our memory has to re-invent who we are!

I decided to make the visit during my final days in India last month. My two aunts were overjoyed to see me and my husband. They cooked a meal for us and we sat together and shared about our respective lives with an openness and vulnerability that surprised me. I saw a gentleness in them I'd not seen before, and the biggest eye-opener for me was acknowledging they had no recollection of my previous visit, when I'd been in tears and ignored for a whole week. While I'd been carrying this wounded memory of our fallout for a big chunk of my adult life, they had simply been getting on with their lives, including living through the deaths of their parents (my grandparents), brother, uncle, and other close relatives. Why on earth would I expect them to remember one argument from such a long time ago!

And through this insight, I felt a sort of release, liberated from the delusion of constantly wanting to reinforce my own beliefs and certainties, which I'd held onto for so many years. I saw the reality of the situation at hand; my aunt was not interested in battling out our differences. She was simply wanting to reconnect with her niece, whom she'd not seen for fifteen years.

When we truly listen, we stop worrying about past conflicts. It is actually not necessary to say anything, nor to have a counter-opinion, nor to be concerned whether the other person has a perspective we can understand, or vice-versa. In fact, the more we ‘forget our-self’ and listen to others’ views and perspectives, the more we are able to perceive a whole and objective picture of the past, present and future.