Imagine waking up one day, and not remembering much about yourself; or waking up and remembering everything, but very vaguely. Imagine the confusion, the frustration. Surely that’s not you now, is it? Maybe it is.
Regardless of how we might think about our brains, human brains do not record the information; they actually construct the memories. Recall a simple memory in its details – what happened, how you behaved, how you felt. It would probably surprise you to think that those details were greatly affected and altered by your brain; maybe you didn’t feel that great after all, your opinion was not as praised or your joke was not deemed that funny. However, your psychological immune system or sub-conscious validator (if you want to call it that), often constructs your memories in this self-biased way. Also, even if you disregard the way you obtain your memories, it is still true that every time you recollect them, you also alter them. In other words, the next time you try to remember that sweet birthday of yours, the memory that will come to your mind will have been affected by the last time you recalled that very birthday. It very much resembles The Telephone game. If we consider that the brain does not record an event as an image or a video, this is not a huge surprise: your constructed memory is fragile.
Even if you could record your memories, there would be an incredible amount of information that you would not be able to fit on the storage space of your brain. In how much detail can you recall your day three days ago? Now try the same process with a day from distant past. The conclusion will be intuitive and somewhat depressing – you cannot remember every detail of your cherished memory; actually there is very little you can remember.
Long before I took an introductory Psychology class and had an opportunity to learn about these counter-intuitive facts about our memories, I thought a lot about my priorities in life. Unsure at times, I was sure of one thing: I wanted to do a variety of interesting things, and harbor memories of them. Bothered with how abstract and volatile my memories seemed and what a little fraction of them I possessed, I decided to start writing a journal.
After talking to a friend of mine who has been keeping a journal for many years, I decided to give it a try. I realized that the small details were important – the context, the surroundings, small events, small thoughts, big thoughts expressed in small thoughts. When I first heard about writing a journal, I imagined carefully deciding what was worthy of being expressed on paper, and trying to create a presentable narrative of some kind. However, I realized that I was doing this for myself, and all of the small factors that had little objective value, were a part of me at the very moment of writing. And If I wanted to preserve me as I was in that moment, I had to include them. So, I included everything, basically every more or less significant thought that passed through my mind. I did not want to construct a memory in the form of a narrative; my brain was already doing that for me in some form. What I wanted to do was to record the process of being, thinking, the experience of myself in as much detail as possible. Often, I could not resist just summing up the details of some recent events. But, other times, I managed to create an entry describing my subjective feelings in some objective detail.
It felt great; every once in a while, I would look at all the pages I had written – it appeared as if my memories had materialized and quantified. However, the greatest enjoyment came while rereading my entries. I was no longer stuck with some vague bundle of feelings my brain stored under the label of some event; I could feel that moment; I could, in a way, relive it. Very simple lines, like “The drizzling rain against the windows” or “a yellow coffee mug next to my notebook”, infused this recollective experience with strange validity and intensity; I knew that those things I had felt for sure. Many times, I remembered things I had completely forgotten or remembered very differently.
If you think that you can accurately remember and later recollect, the way you feel and are right now, think again. Remember, how you make promises when you are happy and have no idea what was going through your head when you made them? Or when you are absolutely sure that you will get some sleep as soon as you get an hour of free time, and when you do, you no longer remember that fatigue, but rush to Netflix? The truth is, there are many very different sides to us, and half the time, you don’t remember being half of them.
With our lives getting more stressed and busier than ever, we have less and less time to think about our memories and hence, those parts of our personality. In this world of constant change, maybe, it is a valuable thing to make sure those selves survive on some medium; So that, once in a while, you can remember who you truly are.