Memories Are Made Of This

But that’s the trouble, doctor. I remember things, yet when I try and get hold of the memory, really try and recall all the details, it slips away as if it wasn’t really there in the first place.

I see.

I’m sorry to trouble you with this, but I have to say I’m worried I might be getting Alzheimer’s or something.

These are short term memories, I take it? Alzheimer’s typically affects the short term memory. Long term ones are already in the bank, as it were, and are usually still available to those with the onset of Alzheimer’s. Not that I think that that’s what we’re dealing with here.

There’s plenty of problems with my short term memory certainly, doctor. Like where I’ve put my keys and glasses. And I can’t tell you how many umbrellas I’ve lost. The number of times I go into the kitchen and can’t remember what I’ve gone in for.

Oh, but that’s perfectly normal. There’s even a name for it. It’s called the boundary effect and it isn’t just confined to people getting on in years.

Yes, that’s just it, doctor. It’s not only senior moments, though there are plenty of those. It’s memories from earlier in life too.

Have you tried accessing, as we in the medical profession like to say, happier memories? It could be that your mind is blocking more unpleasant ones. Try accessing a happier memory, something that made you feel good that you’d really enjoy reliving.

It’s happier memories I’m talking about. They’re just as elusive as any other sort. I can summon up the feeling – the elation or the contentment or the excitement – that a past event represents, but then when I try and think of what actually happened – where it was, who was there, who said what, that sort of thing – it all slips away.

So give me an example.

Right. Okay. Maybe like when I think back to when I first realised I was in love – a long time ago now – we’re both lying in the sun, looking into each other’s eyes. And I think, so this is it, this is love. And it’s a wonderful feeling. But then I realise I can’t remember where the field was that we were in, and which friends were with us, because I’m certain we weren’t alone, nor even whether the sun really was shining. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe, over time, I’ve added that bit. And I start to wonder if I’ve imagined all of it. And then I realise that all my memories are the same. I can’t remember any details and those that there are, I have a troubling feeling I’ve added myself over the years,well after the event

I see. And does that matter? You still have the feeling, don’t you? Of what it was like to be in love for the first time?

I can still conjure up the feeling, yes, but then, that’s it. I feel as if my memories are like those Roman gravestones you used to see in museums. You know the ones, where only one corner is the real thing. The rest is someone else’s reconstruction of what they think the stone would have looked like, or should’ve looked like, all built around that one tiny fragment. Who’s to say whether they’re right, the people who’ve added on the rest? Even if they are, it still means most of it is largely fake. That’s my memories – tiny fragments of feeling – supported by what I think should be around them, but I suspect wasn’t at all.

I think you’re worrying unduly. I’m sure you’re not inventing your old memories.

But I am. I’ve forgotten almost all of them, so I embellish what’s left. And every time I do, something real falls away and I lose another piece of my past and of myself.

Perhaps that’s how it is for everyone. Perhaps our memories are not nearly as fixed as we like to think. It’s possible that each time we recall a memory we have to reconstruct it from the time before, which is itself a reconstruction of the time before that. Some psychologists think so, anyway. All that repeated copying is bound to make for the occasional error, which we then fill in as best we can.

So is it the same for you then, doctor? Your memories are full of holes too?

Well, I have to say I haven’t given it much thought.

Maybe you should. Maybe you’ll find you’ve more holes than memories.

Perhaps. But then, does it really matter? Isn’t it now that counts? Perhaps memories are no more than an indulgence anyway.

I don’t think so. I think our memories are the record of all the things that have made us what we are. Lose them and what have we got left?

Oh, now I’m afraid you’re getting a little too metaphysical for me.

Nothing more than a few scattered impressions, full of holes.

Well, perhaps you’d like to make an appointment with one of my colleagues who can help you with your problem. In the meantime, if you could see your way to bringing our desserts, I’m sure my wife and I would be most grateful.