I’ve been thinking about memory, naturally. I often do anyway, and Dylan Farrow’s open letter has brought it to the fore again. I was thinking yesterday about how non-specific and narrative and composite my memories are, at least the older ones. I set myself a question: can I summon up a clear distinct visual memory that I know to be one memory, like a photograph?

I tried hard for some time, and couldn’t do it. I suspect it can’t be done. If I see something only once, I don’t properly remember it at all. If I see it repeatedly, I can visualize it, but I can tell the visualization is composite – it’s not a one-time look that gets frozen.

Is anybody else different?

Probably not. If memory were not like that, people would probably not take so many pictures. We like pictures so much because we don’t remember what we see.

It’s sad, isn’t it.

I’ll tell you what I can remember way better than I can remember anything visual, and that’s navigation. How to get to places. I can go for walks in my head. It’s quite a good game – “Suppose you’re in Ladbroke Grove, and you decide to walk to Highgate. Go.”

It all makes sense, I’m guessing. Composite memory is plenty good enough for facial recognition and other kinds of recognition – in fact better, because you don’t get a false negative just because an expression is different or the wind is blowing.

Well, it’s stupid to babble about it, I have multiple books that spell all this out, and I’ve even read some of them. But then one has to remember it all…


  1. The Mellow Monkey: Non-Hypothetical says

    I have a remarkably good episodic memory compared to my friends and family, going back all the way into early childhood (I can even remember being potty trained, which my mother tells me happened before I was 18 months old). I suspect this is primarily because I have replayed those memories over and over again. This gets even easier later on in childhood when I began keeping diaries, writing in tiny little letters so I could fit as much as possible onto every page. Then I’d go back and re-read them.

    And so what I remember, really, are the stories I have told myself. If I wrote them down shortly after they happened, chances are good the memory hasn’t changed very much and I’ve simply mentally expanded based around the writing. If I didn’t write them down, who knows? I have a wonderful memory of different episodes in my life and can recall facts about those events, because I have taken pains to have memories of the memories. How could I check if the memory of a memory was accurate, without a picture or a written description from the time?

    A large reason why recording these memories has been so important to me is because of the gaslighting I got at eight years old about my molestation. And then later, with a sexual assault. Then still later when I was raped by a friend. All of these things–all of my memories–were called into question.

    And so, yes, I recognize how futile memory is. I know how malleable it is. Yet my memory is all I have–I am my memory–and while other people get to have their memories of flying a kite, learning to cook, or meeting their partner respected and accepted as perhaps not perfect but obviously reasonable and valid memories, mine are questionable.

    So I write. I remember. Perhaps the sand castle of memory is washed away a little bit every time and the towers change as I try to reconstruct it, but it’s all I can do.

  2. shikko says

    I have memories like this, of one-time events, but I know that what I remember is probably not exactly what has happened. My memory always goes through a sculpting process, paring down over time to what feels like the essence of the moment. Or is this another facet of what you mean by “composite”?

    One example for me is the last time I saw my father before he died. I remember where he was standing, the angle of his shoulders as he shifted his weight between his feet, the angle of his head as he stood there, thinking about who knows what. It’s more of a video clip than a photograph, though. It struck me at the time (not that I knew this would be the last time I saw him, his death was unexpected), because of the circumstance: he was doing me a favour. It’s a good last memory of him.

  3. says

    By “composite” I meant specifically combining a lot of repetitions into one generalized version. Paring down to the essence could be like that or could be more like boiling down.

  4. says

    The navigation skill is one my memory shares with yours. I am extremely poor at remembering specifics of conversations, which has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion.

  5. daniellavine says

    Ophelia, I believe that the sorts of people who compete in memory championships actually use a technique based on navigation like what you mention. It’s the “memory palace” technique where you imagine a place you can navigate through and then populate it with bizarre images that represent the things you want to remember.

  6. Al Dente says

    Composite memory is plenty good enough for facial recognition

    A couple of months ago I saw a photograph of some people I had last seen in the 1980s. I recognized most of them and could even put names to some of them. The odd thing was my wife pointed out I was in the picture. I didn’t recognize myself.

  7. says

    I can summon some memory flashes that are like photos. I’m not sure how accurate they are, but I trust that they are more visual memory that composite or narrative precisely because they don’t make sense. They aren’t part of a story.

    I remember seeing some long grass glow golden in the afternoon sun and ripple slightly — I was about four, I think. There was that buzzy sound of a grasshopper, too. I have a lot of early memories that are like that — moments. I have to put together some sort of narrative to place them, but the memories themselves are like short film clips.

    Not all of my memories are like that, but I do think I remember aspects of single moments with the right stimulus.

  8. says

    That’s interesting. Once in awhile – not at all often – I’ll see something that feels like a flash of memory or a memory prod – I mean I really see it, in the world. But I never know what it’s reminding me of.

  9. quixote says

    Most of my memories are the flash-freeze, video clip kind. I have, or should say had, a near-photographic visual memory. My audio memory, on the other hand, is practically non-existent. Nor do I have that navigation memory you mention to that great an extent. I can generally find my way from A to B, certainly if I’ve been there once before, but I can’t roll through it in my mind like a movie.

    I think, as with so many things biological, the only constant is that all characteristics vary.

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