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How memory works

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All the memories combine to produce a kind of knowing, a gut instinct, an intuition so that without really thinking about it, with no conscious thought, we are able to choose a course of action or speech on autopilot.

How memory works
Why do we remember what we remember? Even as events are happening, even as we say this or think that, there is no telling how we are mentally recording it for posterity. It is only when we later look back that we realise just what it is that we have retained.
Which explains why two people go through the same experience but describe it differently. Even siblings tell stories that do not mirror each other's in detail or chronology; a father’s death, a mother’s abuse, happy days, birthday treats – none of them coincides in mood or megawatt with each other’s. We ourselves remember the same thing differently under other circumstances, sometimes making a villain of a previous hero and vice versa.
The infinite shelves of our brains store everything we saw and heard and thought that unfold at their own behest. Umpteen attempts to remember a tune will not yield results but suddenly in the middle of the night, between a toss and turn, there it is, the tune, right on top of your tongue. What can one do… but sing?
A self-protective inner system rides us through unpleasant occurrences in a coating of shock, so that it seems like it’s happening to someone else. This further affects the memory system. Decades later some other shock jumpstarts the previous suppressed images.
All the memories combine to produce a kind of knowing, a gut instinct, an intuition so that without really thinking about it, with no conscious thought, we are able to choose a course of action or speech on autopilot.
Do memories die? Once we have prodded them, teased them to release pain again and again, once the people associated with that particular memory have stopped mattering to us, once we have ‘moved on’, healed and forgiven, yes, forgetting does seem possible.
And does memory lie? Quite possible. With no witnesses or alibis but you yourself, how on earth is it possible to believe what you think you know? The word ‘subjective’ throws itself at the windshield. So truths get personal. They put in very little work; it is us who put in most of the work. We tweak it to suit us, to fill the gaps wherever they spring up, to flesh out the facts. An elf mathematician sits inside us putting two and two together all the time and getting a different total each time.
Things fade as time goes on, light does dim and everything becomes ‘once upon a time’ as if a fairy-tale one heard long ago as a child. Amnesia and ageing and Alzheimer’s happen. Relationships change, foes turn friends and friends turn strangers. As clocks go tick-tock, we hang on to whatever’s left behind in our minds.
Feelings remain even as we turn forgetful. It is the emotion from the past that stays with us even though we no longer recall every word spoken or heard that set that emotion into motion. In the evenings of our lives, the sieves in our heads still bring to our notice something from here, something from there. Like Emma Healey’s elderly sleuth in Elizabeth is Missing, we eventually have the answers – even though the question now eludes us.
Shinie Antony is a writer and editor based in Bangalore. Her books include The Girl Who Couldn't Love, Barefoot and Pregnant, Planet Polygamous, and the anthologies Why We Don’t Talk, An Unsuitable Woman, Boo. Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Asia Prize for her story A Dog’s Death in 2003, she is the co-founder of the Bangalore Literature Festival and director of the Bengaluru Poetry Festival.
Read Shinie Antony's columns here.
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