What are memories?

It is very interesting what neuroscience and psychology are finding out peu à peu about how our memory works. It is what we often suspect in others but thought impossible in ourselves: Memory is deceptive. What’s more, memory errors are the rule, not the exception.

Memories can be deceiving

Memory is evolutionarily designed to store the peak of a painful or pleasurable episode as well as the feelings at the end, neglecting the duration of the experience. Thus, the abortive conclusion of a concert can ruin forty minutes of the purest musical enjoyment and cloud the memory in retrospect to do so.

The “experiencing self” and the “remembering self”

But fortunately, there is essentially only one department in our memory that often deceives us: autobiographical memory. It stores experiences relevant to life history. And it seems that its function is not to represent an objective truth, but rather to let us tell our story in such a way that we can cope today and tomorrow.

“The experiencing self has no voice,” says psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. “The remembering self sometimes gets it wrong, but it’s the one that keeps records and determines what we learn from life.”

Memories are multi-sensory experiences

The formation of a memory depends on the raw data provided by our perception. Memory works multisensory: hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting, seeing. We register the body’s placement in space, gravity, temperature, humidity, and more. Any sensory perception can be subject to error, and it happens often. Every color, every touch, every look is recognized, evaluated, stored with the help of memories of earlier perceived or learned things, whereby it makes no difference whether the perception is true or an illusion.

What memories are being stored?

Signal transmissions are what physiologically represent what has been learned and experienced. Intense memories are the result of a continuous flow of information from one cell to the next. The greater the emotion, the more stable the synaptic connections and more persistent the memory.

The more details around an event are perceived and stored, the easier it is to recall the memory. Each thing opens new doors for chains of associations.

What remains of a lifetime of memories?

International studies paint a fairly consistent picture when it comes to one quantitative aspect of the question: memory density over the lifespan. 70 percent of the strongest memories in a person’s life relate to the first third of life and only 30 percent to the many years after the 25th birthday. Graphically, this results in a line with a prominent hill at the beginning, called a reminiscence bump or memory hill.

After age 30, the number of memories decreases dramatically, though the “remembering self” is not the “experiencing self.” The former focuses on the new, the surprising, the divergent, the emotional. Repetitive experiences disappear in the mass of those already experienced.

This is another reason why time seems to fly as we age. Because the more memories are stored in a period of time, the longer it appears in retrospect. Which, conversely, does not mean that life is over at 30. After all, it is the “experiencing self” that lives. No matter how the “remembering self” books it later.

The text above is an excerpt (translated) from the article “We are constantly reinventing ourselves” by Anja Jardine published in the NZZ on Saturday 05 June 2021.

Here the whole article in German (NZZ e-Paper):

Keeping a diary with DAYCATCHER helps to record and process experiences in depth and to record very extensive chains of associations with a date, picture, title and text. When you read your catch later, you remember again how the whole day felt experienced with all senses. But it also leads to the fact that one consciously seeks to enrich the daily routine, the everyday life with new experiences, because just these lead to new positive memories. Even into old age.

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