Teacher Professor

April 28, 2010

Sprinkled Memories

Filed under: Uncategorized — Teacher Professor @ 11:35 am

There is fascinating research by Dr. Karim Nader and reported in the Smithsonian magazine about how memories are made- and here’s the kicker- REMADE just by remembering them.  In other words, he hypothesizes that memories are plastic and just by the physical, neurological  act of remembering, you change what you remember.  The proteins and synapses of the brain rearrange themselves as they are used and make new combinations and new connections.  They’re investigating this process with possible drug possibilities for sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It all sounds very Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  There are tremendous implications for education as well.  It’s all very exciting research involving biology, neurology, and brain research about what makes us remember.

In other words, convenient memory.

I had a distinct  moment of that this past weekend when I went to my high school reunion.  There’s a classic story of my prom that I love to tell.  It basically goes like this:

My high school boyfriend and I had broken up my junior year and I was drifting through my senior year.  A friend of mine, “Thomas”, who was a freshman in college and a year ahead of me, told me that I HAD to go to prom- it was a milestone that was not to be missed.  So, we went together.  We were good friends and had flirted and played around during stage productions, etc.  He was “an older man” and quite cute.  But we had never broken that awkward teenage barrier of “more than friends”.

We go to prom- I in my lovely, ruffled Jessica McClintock pink froth and he in a lovely, ruffled  tuxedo (It WAS the 80’s!).  Our prom picture shows us terribly awkward in our finery and oh-so-self-conscious of the perceived importance of the moment.  We ate, we danced, we flirted, we had a great time.

At 10:45, the band took a break.  We took a walk outside on the golf course.  The air was that perfect Texas air- humid- without being sticky and oh so soft, there were lights in the trees, and strains of classical music playing.  We went over a little rise on the golf course and a fountain was playing down below- lit up with fairy lights.  A perfect little bench was next to the fountain.  We took a seat.  Every nerve tingled.  I was aware of his breathing and my own heart, racing.  We looked deep in each other’s eyes.  Was this THE moment?  Was this when we broke through the “just friends” barrier?  He leaned over, and…

It turned 11:00.  The lights and the fountain, apparently on a timer, turned off.  The band came back from break and the raucous strains of a Duran Duran song blasted over the loudspeakers.  We paused, and burst into laughter.  “Talk about a Woody Allen moment,” he said.  We went back to the dance, ate some more, and ended the evening just jolly- and “just friends” who had shared… something.

And that’s how my story goes- repeated and solidified in my memory from the retelling of it.  It’s a “what could have been” story as well as a story of the Cinderella that wasn’t.  I didn’t get the prince, and we all stayed frogs.  The Universe clearly had other plans.

So, after realizing that my memories were flawed from my European fugue, I asked Thomas about it as we drove back to Lala’s house after a lovely afternoon hearing about the intervening 25 years.  I wanted to double-check my memory- was it really as funny as I remembered?

I started the story and as I got to the part about seeing the fountain, he started to laugh.  “I remember- this involves sprinklers!” he chuckled.  “Sprinklers?” I asked my brain and conveniently, a memory of the sprinklers dropped into my head.  Oh yeah- there were sprinklers.  Sprinklers that I had forgotten.

And so he and I recreated a memory that we both had.  I have it now- a shared memory, complete with sprinklers.  He  now has a different version of his old memory as well- one with the band coming back.  He had forgotten that part.

What we both did remember was how sweet was the relationship- what a clear, nice, fresh high school relationship it was-  with potential, but one that wasn’t meant to be.  In his version, he calls it a “John Hughes” moment- one that might happen in one of those classic 80’s movies.  Either way- the boy didn’t get the girl.  We are both very happily married and wouldn’t have it any other way.  But it was a lovely moment of growing up.

And did any of this really happen?  I have no idea.  I can’t remember. I only remember the story.


  1. EXACTLY!!!!
    I’ve read about false confessions as well, where people actually create a memory of something that did not happen under pressure. And then they confess to a murder that they did not do. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_confession

    I can’t find the original story I read, but see the “internalized false confessions” section of this link http://crime.about.com/od/issues/a/false.htm

    Highly suggestible individuals often unwittingly transmit their imagination of the facts of a crime as told to them by an investigator into believing it is an actual memory and then confess to a crime they didn’t do.

    I think i’m a highly suggestible individual because my memories change all the time- and believe the implication of Nader’s work is that memory and what actually happens in an event are often mostly unrelated. – depends on the person, but that our emotions have such a high impact on memory, that often we remember the emotion, but the details are fluid.

    in my case- VERY FLUID. If someone tells me that a certain thing happened, then I imagine it, and then can’t tell if what I imagined really happened or not- if it’s a genuine re-remembering, or if I’m just a convincing imaginer.

    So when Kirkegaard said that “truth is subjectivity”, i’m totally feeling this. Even to the point of thinking that my memories are about 99% emotional fiction that happens to be very convincing. 🙂 et Voila!

    Comment by lala — April 28, 2010 @ 12:16 pm | Reply

  2. I KNOW! I love, love your line about “my memories are about 99% emotional fiction that happens to be very convincing”… In other words, there is no reality, since events only happen when we pay attention and remember, and memory can be distorted just by the process of thinking about it.

    Makes my head spin… And what does this mean for people with autism, addictions, or other physical and emotional differences? How do they organize their memories?

    Your stepson has MANY questions to answer- tell him to get busy!

    Comment by profmother — April 28, 2010 @ 2:52 pm | Reply

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