Life Isn’t Short, But Our Memories Are

You hear it all the time. “Life is short.” “Time goes by so fast.” “It seems only yesterday that ….” “How did I get this age?” “Where did the time go?’”

Let’s look at this closely. First, because we sleep about one-third of the time, this leaves 67% of our life in a waking state. Okay, I know that some of you aren’t getting enough sleep, so you can subtract one-fourth, leaving 75%. Second, many of our daily behaviors are habits—rituals if you will—that we typically do without thinking and therefore do not get stored in our long-term memory. Let’s presume that you do each of these only one hour a day. And 1 hour = 1/24th or 4% of a day. So, the time of your life might break down to something like this:

4% Transportation: walking, driving, being a passenger

4% Television, Internet, texting

4% Sorting mail, paying bills, cleaning house, washing dishes, clothes

4% Hygiene: shower, toilet, dressing, shaving, make-up, combing

4% Food: shopping, preparing, eating

This adds up to 20%. Subtracting this from 67% leaves slightly less than 50% of our life has the potential to actually be remembered.

Think back on your life. What do you remember?

One way to think of this is to put it in terms of nouns, then verbs. What are the memorable nouns in your life: the persons, places, and things? And what did you do with, to, or for these folks? What did you do in the places you went? What did you do with the things in your life? Another way to categorize memories is in terms of the senses involved: sights, smells, tastes, touches, and sounds. Because taste is almost always involves smell, we can combine those two together. In summary, we can categorize life memories in terms of the information taken in by our four senses about what we did with, to, or for the people, places and things in our life.

Why We Forget

Okay. Let’s say that you’ve lived 20, 40, or more years. Why don’t you have millions of memories at your disposal? One reason is because your memory works efficiently to store events into categories. For example, let’s say every year for the past ten years you went on vacation at the same ocean location with the same people. You drove the same route, rented a room at the same place, played on the same beach, made similar sand castles, ate, watched TV, played games, and did much of the same things. Ten years of this would likely get categorized in your mind as “one (or perhaps) a few events” at the beach. Unless of course something different—distinctive—happened to make it memorable. Pick any of the following and you’ll immediately see how your brain will be unable to lump the event into the “same” category:

On the highway to the beach you have two flat tires.

A three year-old girl, missing from the beach for several anxious minutes, is found safe after a frantic water search by all people on the beach.

A car gets stuck in the sand. It takes eight people to free it. You get a mouthful of sand from the spinning tires.

A new friend accompanies you to the beach.

You stay in a place you’ve never been before—or since.

It is from these distinctive events that the stuff of memories is made. Such instances resist being swallowed by sameness that leads our brain to generalizations. Years later, while you may not remember most of your individual experiences at the ocean, you’ll never forget the sights, sounds, and feelings that swirled around you as you joined in the search for the little girl.

School Memories

Let’s investigate this phenomenon further by using the example of school. Think back when you were 16. For most people this is a time when they were in 10th and 11th grade. What do you remember of those days? Think of your best friend. What places did you go? What did you do with this person? With what things did you interact? What memories pop out at you? Interestingly we all have vivid recollections –memory flashes if you will—of events in our lives that are mundane—walking down the hall to History class, getting back a math assignment and comparing it with our best friend, getting in our car on a sunny day. Why these memories are not relegated to the heap of events lost to generalizations is not clear. What is clear is the fact that, even at 16, most of the events we remember are those which are distinctive: the one football game you attended, the prom, field trip to the aquarium, first kiss (do you remember your 18th or 450th kiss?), drivers license, graduation day. Had you gone to 20 football games or ten proms you would not likely have remembered them all.

Flashbulb Memory

Another example of this is what psychologists call flashbulb memory. It happens when a unique and significant event suddenly is thrust into our life. Examples quickly clarify how this works: 9/11, the death of a loved one, winning a championship game, the moment we learned we got our first job. One theory why traumatic events and extremely joyous events are so ingrained in our memory is that the sudden upsurge of adrenaline permanently etches into our long-term memory the events surrounding the stimulating event. It’s as if a self-protective mechanism is hard wired in your brain in an attempt to protect itself from future harm or to forever retain a cherished moment. In the face of what it deems a significant event, your brain commands, “You will not forget this, even if you try.” Thus, remembering flashbulb events takes no effort.

The Brain and Memory

What we have with the human brain, therefore, is an efficient organ that categorizes most events into mundane soon-to-be-forgotten life experiences because they are of little consequence. But, as a protective device, this same organ automatically stores events that exceed the boundaries of common experience. What does this tell us about our own memories? Of course we can’t make every event in our life memorable. But there is something we can do. We can use methods to create more distinctive memories and find ways to retrieve less distinctive life events. Let’s look:

There are different kinds of memory: one type, short-term memory, can begin to fade after a few seconds or minutes and may be completely gone by 30 minutes. Quick. Go back to exactly one week ago and try to remember brushing your teeth that morning. Go back exactly one month ago and conjure up eating your evening meal. Here comes the obvious reason for your lack of memory: unless there was something distinctive about the event, it’s gone. The other type of memory is long term. It is stored in our brain and will stay there unless it fades over time. For example, many students who begin college report that they have “forgotten” all the algebra they learned in high school. However, research is clear that there is almost always a “savings” when we relearn a concept, even if we believe that the information has “totally disappeared.” In the case of algebra, most people relearn it faster than if they’d never been exposed to it. This tells us that we do have memories of events stored long ago that can be retrieved if only we have the proper triggers.

This is not to say that our memories are like video cameras, recording events exactly as they happened. Researchers are quite aware of the numerous mistakes made during so-called “recovered” memories or the fallibility of eyewitness testimony or the frustration we experience when someone “remembers” an event much differently than we do. Of course we’re sure that our memory is accurate and that the other person’s recollection is flawed.

Let’s review what we’ve covered. First, we forget at least half of our life because of sleep and everyday rituals. Second, because of the way our brain works, we cluster similar experiences into one category, such as “my trip to the ocean.” Third, many of our everyday experiences, unless they are flashbulb memories are lost to short-term memory or simply fade over time. Fourth, there is still much room in our brain for long-term memories; but, unless we find a way to retrieve them, they, too will fade or become distorted. So, what can we do? If it is true that life is not short, are we are destined to forget most of it? For many people whose lives are nearing an end, life may not appear so short if their brain had a way of retrieving the hundreds of thousands—millions actually—of events that comprised their life.

Capturing Memories

But, how can this be done? How can we create ways to capture more of the memories of our life? You know the answers already.

1. Seek Variety. First, find more ways to make the events in our lives more distinctive. Don’t go to the same place. Even if you go to the same beach, stay at a different location. Do at least one unique thing: fly a kite, rent a mo-ped, have a bon fire, go jogging, go during winter, bring someone new, bring a new game, go home a different way, swim in a different part of the beach, build a different sand castle, meet new people, pick up litter, go for a midnight walk. Any one or more of these unique events will serve to form a new memory.

2. Capture Memories. Pictures are one way. Videotaping is another. Journaling is a third. Let’s look at each. Every human from the beginning of time up until about 200 years ago had to rely on their memories or paintings and drawings of people, places, and things that were no longer in their view. Think of all the millions of people who lived and died without the ability to capture their memories on paper or canvas. With the invention of photography a vast world of memory triggers was born. Today, with digital cameras and phones everyone can instantly capture events with the push of a button. With video cameras everywhere we have something that our ancestors could never have imagined and our relatives years from now can enjoy. For a few hundred dollars we can purchase a device that will enable us to revisit the events of our lives whenever we wish. While we are presently limited to capturing the sights and sounds of our world, someday we will be able to record the accompanying smells and touches of our surroundings, something akin to Aldous Huxley’s “feelies.” You are living at a time of unique opportunity in the history of humankind. You have a choice: let the opportunity slip by or make changes in the way you record your daily life.

3. Journal. Have your ever kept a journal? Have your ever gone back and read it? I have a journal of 1963. I was 16. When I read the journal 15 years later, I was shocked at how much of 1963 I had forgotten, not to mention how my memory had reordered the past. If someone had asked me during those 15 years about any girls of interest at that age, I would have quickly responded, “Oh, Nancy. Yes, I was in love (or so I thought) with her for five or six months.” When I read my diary, what did I discover? Nancy was a six-week infatuation and then it was over. By week seven her name was never entered in my journal again. In addition to distortions, I discovered hundreds of mundane events that faded from my memory: ironing my Levi’s, bagging groceries and pushing shopping carts at my job, giving friends rides to school. Of course there are events in our lives that we’d like to forget—like the time I had four guys in my car and, as I drove past the hamburger joint across from my high school, I hit not one—but two cars. I do have a clear memory being yanked out of the car and pushed around by the car owners and their friends. But, fortunately I don’t have any recollection of the pain they inflicted on me; nor do I have a clear memory of the humiliation I must have felt in front of a hundred or so people who loudly wondered where I’d learned to drive. So, yes, I understand that it is helpful for our memory not to record every event in its entirety. But, when I look back on my life, I can understand when people say how short life is, especially if they’ve done little to nudge their memories of the hundreds of thousands of events that filled the years they’ve lived.

I invite you to imagine that you are lying on your deathbed, looking back on your life. In your last moments, while you still have the ability to think clearly, consider saying the following statement to yourself:

Wow, I’ve lived quite a life—perhaps not as long as I’d like. But I’ve done an excellent job doing a variety of things in my life, going places, meeting people, and making memories; and along the way, I took pictures, videotaped, and kept a journal. Doing all this helped me appreciate the fact that I’ve remembered thousands of events complete with sorrow and joy, fear and contentment, and loss and love. I have lived my life and have few regrets. Thank goodness I read that article years ago. I can die knowing that my life wasn’t short at all—it was filled to the brim with memories.

 

Bob Baugher

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Bob Baugher, Ph.D., is a Psychology Instructor at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington where he teaches courses in Psychology and Death Education. As a trainer for LivingWorks he has trained more than 1,000 people in suicide intervention. He has given more than 600 workshops on grief and loss across the U.S. including England, South Africa, and Namibia. As a professional advisor to the South King County Chapter of The Compassionate Friends, Bob has been invited to speak at many of the TCF national conferences during the past 20 years. He earned a certificate in Thanatology from the Association for Death Education and Counseling and in the 1990s he was a clinician with University of Washington School of Nursing Parent Bereavement Project. Bob has written several articles and seven books on the bereavement process. Reach him at b_kbaugher@yahoo.com. Dr. Baugher appeared on the radio show "Healing the Grieving Heart" with Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley to discuss Coping with Anger and Guilt After a Loss.

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