Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Experiential Memory

My mind works in a rather interesting way. When I remember things, I don't merely remember them from a detached perspective, able to puzzle over situations and ideas. In fact, I really don't remember at all. I relive.

When I "recall a memory," I relive the situation as it happened. I feel like it's all happening over again; I feel the exact same emotions. I can tell how everything tasted and how everything looked at that exact moment in time, everything I noticed, that is, when the event actually occurred. This is what I have termed "experiential memory," because this is not a recollection but an experience.

This means that if I write about my experiences, I am writing as I relive that experience. I am always drained and exhausted after writing in such a manner. When I do this, I don't even look at what I am writing; I just close my eyes, fall back into the memory and type. Or sometimes I look at the screen, but I'm not in my head; my fingers fly far faster than my mind processes. This is because I am experiencing the event all over again. If the event was a negative one, such as Templars was, I am feeling exactly as I felt then; I am there again, within that room; it is only my physical self that isn't there.

This is one of the reasons I don't forget things. I can't forget them because memory isn't a detached experience for me; it is a reliving.

The really beautiful thing about experiential memory is its ability to give pleasure. I can choose to remember pleasant or happy experiences and all my emotions will be in tune with this reliving of the event. But I need to trigger the memory. I generally do this using songs on my iPod. This is going to sound strange to you, so allow me to explain.

I like quite a lot of music. But often, at least initially, when I purchase music it is not for the music itself but for the event the music links to in my mind. Some examples:

1. "This Love" reminds me of my friends CG & A during Summer at YU when we were all at Madame Toussauds and were upstairs by the "American Idol" contest. They were singing "This Love" and we were all so happy. Every time I listen to "This Love" by Maroon 5, it triggers that memory and those same emotions of happiness and enjoying the fun.

2. "Under the Bridge" by Red Hot Chili Peppers reminds me of art class at North Shore, as does "Jammin" by Bob Marley and a whole lot of other songs. That's because we listened to these on mixes during art class. Any time I'm going for feelings of peace and calm or memories of my classmates, I can listen to these songs; that will trigger those thoughts.

3. "Unwell" by Matchbox 20 reminds me of my friend Kate, because she told me it was one of her very favorite songs. I also listened to it with her many times while we were in Art together, and so whenever I hear it I think of her, and when I think of her, I think of all my wonderful experiences with her and I am happy.

Then there are more obvious connections. If a particular friend recommends a particular song to me or buys me a particular CD, I will forever associate that piece of music with him. One of my friends bought me HIM's "Dark Light" CD; whenever I listen to it I think of him. Another of my friends recommended that I listen to S&M Metallica and particularly recommended "Call of the Ktulu" and "Master of Puppets," whenever I listen to this, I think of him. It's not that my friend has anything to do with the piece of music in question, necessarily; it is simply my mental association. So if I walk into a store and hear "Call of the Ktulu" playing, my mind is immediately going to jump to the friend who recommended I listen to that, at which point I'll start wondering about how he's doing and make a mental note to inform him of this or that.

Music is always associated with something in my mind. Sometimes it really is simply the lyrics that make an impression upon me, but more often than not there's a story behind them (one of the reasons I love soundtracks to movies and musicals. There is meaning to that music, see?)

Sometimes I hear a song and immediately feel a certain way- something that has nothing to do with the lyrics themselves- wary or uncertain or angry and then I have to figure out why. Ten to one, I realize that the first time I heard this song, even if it was simply background noise at the time; for example, say I was in a department store and heard it, I felt unhappy. This means the next time I hear it I am also going to feel those same emotions. Of course, once having recognized that, I can actually pay attention to the lyrics and the music and see whether I like the song. But I find it very interesting, how powerful the link between the music and the experience is for me.

It doesn't have to be music. There are all sorts of triggers for me to relive experiences. I can hear a quote from someone or watch a movie and anything can trigger a "memory" of mine. This is usually a good thing; the only time it isn't good is when I'm in a public place, say in shul or something, and I'm suddenly struck by a pasuk and I remember an entire scenario that took place regarding, for example, a fight I had with a teacher over that pasuk. This means I've suddenly gone back in time and am reliving this experience and afterwards I'm left feeling very unhappy and miserable even though there's no cause, because this happened a long time ago. So then I spend the rest of shul concentrating on this memory rather than the here and now, which can be problematic.

Of course, should I exert the effort, I can control my thoughts and pull myself back to the present, but I rarely do that. It depends on the need and whether it is necessary.

It's rather nice to be able to carry all one's friends in one's pocket; it's one of the great joys of having an iPod. Depending on what I want to remember or who I want to think about, all I have to do is play a particular song, the song I've dedicated to them in my mind, and everything comes back to me. This is very good because it means I can calm myself down or change my mood at will (not always, but often.)

I often wonder whether anyone else experiences memory in that way, as a reliving instead of recalling. Like all things, there's a good side and a bad side to this; the good side allows for me to re-experience joy as frequently as I like or to write very emotionally charged pieces and the bad side allows me to dwell on negatives overmuch and to feel completely drained and exhausted after "remembering" certain events.


Erachet said...

"When I "recall a memory," I relive the situation as it happened. I feel like it's all happening over again; I feel the exact same emotions. I can tell how everything tasted and how everything looked at that exact moment in time, everything I noticed, that is, when the event actually occurred."

I have the same thing. Exactly. I have always been told I have a very good memory because I remember emotions, I remember events that caused me to feel a certain way. This is usually why I have a more difficult time memorizing dates and facts for school - those things don't make me feel any particular way. The only details I remember are ones I want to remember. If I'm learning something I really feel will come in useful later, for anything - mostly for a possible story - I will remember it without even having to study it again. If I find something particularly interesting, I will remember it. But if I don't, I have a much, much more difficult time. And when I do remember experiences, they always make me feel the emotions I felt then, most notably embarrassment.

What you said about music rings true for me, as well. I often listen to songs because of what they make me think. They also often help me develop my story ideas. Honestly, each of my stories has a soundtrack. It's fun.

Right now, the song that's doing that for me (that I just listened to on the train this morning) is "Over you" by Daughtry. Another great song by them, by the way, is Home, which I love. But at the moment, "Over You" is the song at the ending credits of the movie that has yet to be made on the book I have yet to write (well, actually, I started writing it on Sunday).

Anyway, so basically, I totally know what you're saying here.

Chana said...

Yeah, I am not a spitback girl (can't throw dates/facts/ random pieces of trivia back at you.) This meant that for history, if I wanted to know dates, I had to assign them particular meaning and particular anecdotes so that I would care to remember them.

I hate memorization. Hate it. Can't do it to save my life. And yet I can quote you whole passages from my favorite books without any effort. And that is because I'm not memorizing those; it takes no effort- it's there because I love it enough for it to be imprinted on my mind.

And this is why I never do well on anything that requires memorization...anything that requires knowledge of a thousand theorems and formulas...or my histology exam, for instance. Also the reason I put little to no stock in knowing lots of facts (I have never thought knowing lots of facts= being smart. That's because I know plenty of spitback kids who can't think. Of course, there are other folks who know facts and can think, which is pretty cool, but less frequent, I find.)

My point is that I have always thought that knowing the facts is a prerequisite to thought, not enough in and of itself.

What it comes down to, though, is just the way our minds work, I suppose.


Ezzie said...

Exactly - it took me a while to realize that that's NOT how other people remember it. (Serach is the complete reverse - she memorizes details, facts, etc., I can't do that.)

It's also how I learned everything for school. I couldn't memorize, I had to learn it; unless of course I did it short-term, in which case it was immediate spitback. (In the end, I did that a lot... ;) )

So much more to say...

Chana said...

Right, but Ezzie, once we learned it we learned it well and the knowledge was there to stay, no?

As for memorization tests, I always crammed the night before; that was the only way for me to even attempt to get the stuff.

But how are you an accountant if you can't do formulas and suchlike? Or are those somehow not necessary?

haKiruv said...

I think I have more of a spatial knowledge. I remember the way everything looked and the gist of things said. I can remember smells and emotions, but it takes a bit more to recollect. For instance, you mentioned Metallica, which brought to my mind the covers of their respective albums, James Hetfield getting held at an airport for looking like a terrorist, the Metallica concerts I've been to, and some bass riffs from their songs and all the moments where I acquired that knowledge. I don't feel the feelings of those memories much though, as much I just remember the feelings.

Ezzie said...

Oh, the stuff that mattered I actually learned. Generally never need to learn something twice.

Happens to be that accounting is more intuitive than actual knowledge.

Anonymous said...

But how are you an accountant if you can't do formulas and suchlike? Or are those somehow not necessary?


David_on_the_Lake said...

I'm the same way..
I have a whole collection of song time capsules...
Its scary how it can really take me back.

It doesnt exhaust me though..it makes me sad..a strange longing...

Fajita said...

"Unwell" carries me back to a wide empty street in L.A. tx for reminding me.

Jack Steiner said...

"Under the Bridge" by Red Hot Chili Peppers

That song is about LA. It always reminds me of home.

Doc said...

The type of memory function you are referring to is called episodic memory.

Personally, I have very little episodic memory, and I've always been amazed and impressed by people who can do like you and call an experience to mind with suc color and richness. That being said, my experiences do color and shape my actions and such, I'm just unable to relive them. Interestingly, I also have a terrible time placing when events happen (how long ago or roughly what week or month) but I can, for the most part, order them correctly on a timeline, if you will

Luckily, I've quite a head for remembering movie plots, song lyrics, random facts and trivia, names and such. (Semantic memory)