Seattle blog

Photographic memory

A little girl wearing a pink dress runs between a 50 foot steel man, his hammer swinging again and again outside the Seattle Art Museum. She squeals and throws her head back in laughter, running from her little brother and hiding behind the metal sculpture. Whatever else happens in her day that moment will be remembered as blissful. At least the first time she remembers it. Well maybe not even then. Memories remain mainly a mystery, alluding much of neuroscience and psychology, despite many scientists – and probably more pseudoscientists – attempting to grasp the structure of this central piece of the human mind. One thing is certain: we are not record players. No memory is safe, no memory is a perfect memory. If I pull something up from my computer’s memory, it will be identical to the last time I saved the file or image or whathaveyou. But your brain doesn’t work that way. Each time we recall something, be it a nostalgic childhood home, a fight with a loved one or a memorable game, we actively color that memory by recalling it. Thinking that the memory is something outside your mood and current state is over-simplifying the structure of our minds. We are approximation machines, and evolved just so. It’s better to have five routes to the watering hole that may not be perfect but get us there just the same than to remember one route by each blade of grass and shrub along the way.

In essence, even our strongest memories are flexing each time we recall them. If we’re upset, we lay upon our memories this same burden. This can turn a happy memory into a vague disappointment, or a failure into a learning process. Each memory works this way, turning with the winds of our mood to potentially create a unique direction after each recollection. Combine these memory vectors into a larger web or idea, such as a family, or in my case of reflection, home, and you may start to see the tangled mess we wander in every day. But thankfully our nervous systems process most of this information without our conscious acknowledgement. But I feel this now, walking empty streets of Seattle that run with emotion. Seemingly random pieces of information around me start to take weight, like a circling boat crashing against waves it created. I can’t help but try and match my current life to the one I lived here. So many associations and events and happiness and frustrations and so on. In a sense I want to integrate these memories into who I am now, but I feel that unlike the complimentary shapes that make up a puzzle, the human experience isn’t so orderly. I know the Northwest makes up the majority of my experiences, but the tangent of new experiences over the past two years has turned what was so familiar to a slightly different angle. It’s as if I was given a pair of glasses that converts everything in my vision by 10 degrees. After some time we naturally adjust to a change in perception, but it takes time and directed effort.

Yet underneath this coping I'm reminded when I see my old friends and familiar landscapes of how lucky I have been to have a happy childhood, great education, loyal companions. Really, whatever changes have happened in my absence are washed away in light of this. I'm trying to make the most out of my time, taking trips to see friends and family, in a way purposefully pulling out as many old memories as I can. Just because Disney Land or any childhood wonder doesn't have the same magical draw as an adult, it doesn't mean it isn't still a magical place or that same feeling has to die within us. We make that decision and can hold onto that feeling if we choose. It's hard work, especially as life unravels it's mysteries in confusing and confounding ways. But maybe when we create a home for ourselves, we are digging a well of these assorted memories, tying together incomplete ideas and loose ends so when some crack or break, the water never goes dry.