How much do I really remember?

A lot of my key memories of my childhood aren’t really mine. They are of incidents that I don’t have my own memory of, but which I talked about and laughed about with my parents so many times that they have become canon. I suspect this is pretty common: most of the memories that most people have of their early childhood are not authentic.

But some are. And the reason I know this is because there are little incidents that I never told anyone else about — so there has never been this reinforcement that you get from do-you-remember-when and what-about-the-time-when. A trivial example: I remember stopping in a cafe with my mum when we were shopping, smelling real coffee for the first time, and being mesmerised by the tanks of juice with their paddles constantly churning. I would have been very young: maybe two, perhaps three years old.

Another example: I remember when I was about six years old, my parents threw out an old piece of furniture — maybe a bookcase — and that while it was sitting in the back garden waiting to be disposed of, it occurred to me that you could fix pram wheels to the corners, and it could be a kind of giant go-kart for several children at once to sit in. This is the first time I have ever told anyone that not-very-exciting nugget of my childhood.

How much is our perception of ourselves built up from other people’s memories of us? And how much is our own memories of how we perceived things?

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8 responses to “How much do I really remember?

  1. I have so many happy memories of your childhood I wouldn’t know where you begin.

  2. A Frenchmen wrote an enormously long book about this. (A Norwegian fellow is currently writing an even longer one.)

  3. I mentioned to you a while ago that I have a memory (almost certainly false) of meeting Douglas Adams at high school. Memory is a very odd thing, and I now realize it cannot be relied upon to be accurate. I will bear this in mid if I ever end up on a Jury.

  4. Andrew, I assume you’re referring to Proust’s seven-volume masterwork A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, which as I understand it, ostensibly tells of the irrevocability of time lost, the forfeiture of innocence through experience, the reinstallment of extra-temporal values of time regained. (I wouldn’t know; I’ve not read it. I have, however, eaten a small cake.)

    Myles, you are almost 100% certainly right that your Douglas Adams memory is false — having been at the same school as you, I am quite sure I would have remembered.

  5. The neurochemistry of memory is understood enough now that it is known for sure that recalling something “melts” the memory: for a few hours it is as mutable as it was when newly remembered: in that time it is perhaps modified with the emotional overlay of your recall of it, but it may also be that all you remember from that point on is not the original memory, but the memory of a memory. But of course if you don’t do this to a memory, if you never recall it, it fades and is lost.

    So in that sense *none* of your memories are genuine.

  6. Gee, Nix, thanks a whole bunch.

  7. Pingback: Artwork from 1980 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  8. This Radio 4 programme has some interesting things to say about memory: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08pdy0f

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