How To Intentionally Keep The Memories That Are Important To You

“I don’t remember!”

I find myself saying this more and more often. Is it the onset of some variety of dementia–the accepted and expected forgetfulness of aging, or some obscure disease process named after the scientists who collected a group of symptoms and identified them as some kind of “syndrome,” or is it yet another indication of being barraged and overwhelmed by too much information invading my life and interfering with my attempts at moving through life with an attitude of calm reflection? Or all of the above?

I recently realized that I have forgotten far more than I currently remember.

The huge collection of detailed information I swallowed from two semesters of Organic Chemistry? Gone! The name of the friend from 25 years ago whose black velvet living room drapes I admired? Not a clue!!
The location of the cookbook that held a much loved recipe for a wonderful chocolate pie? Not discoverable in my memory bank!

Some scientists believe that memories are not really gone, but that they are stored in a kind of vault, for which the key or access code is just hiding, temporarily, until it is really needed. My personal belief, not based on any scientific studies, is that the memories associated with strong emotions or senses have a higher profile in our memories, and so are easier to locate when scanning back in our personal histories.

The only emotions I associate with that year of Organic Chemistry are a kind of endless slogging attempt to make meaning out of abstractions. Not strong enough to increase the retention quotient. The friend with the beautiful drapes? I remember the texture, color and flow of those draperies as a kind of sensual memory–one that I can easily recall. And the cookbook? I remember the look of the page, on the left side, marred by drips of ingredients spattered by enthusiastic mixing… but the book itself? Might as well have gone into the Bermuda Triangle. The associations with eating that chocolate pie, however, are intense and easily recalled.

As I move through life, exposed to more and more experiences and stimuli, I am beginning to consciously think about how to privilege some experiences over others, so that they have a better chance of becoming treasured memories, easily accessible and available to be repeatedly enjoyed. At the same time, I am working on how to, in an almost meditative way, allow other experiences to fade, gently, into obscurity or oblivion. Do I really have that choice–or are the semi-conscious processes of selective memory completely out of my control? Are my intentions to remember effective?

I am not the first person to ponder this. As in many aspects of life, I look to my faith tradition for guidance. And there it is, that word, zachor: “remember”. All through our text traditions, we are reminded to remember certain things. The cycle of the holidays are repeated reminders to remember. But often those are abstract reminders, buried under layers of text and commentary or hidden in our daily lives behind the allure of new internet memes or the blistering pace of political scandals and intrigues. How to we intervene amidst the blitz of material to discern what is really meaningful, what might bring more joy and what might increase our wisdom?

First, since I think that memories tied to emotional and sensual experiences have a higher profile, I want to strive to create high involvement; to correlate experiences I want to transform into strong memories with indelible associations. Being linked with distinct aromas, or high contrast textures, for example, helps isolate that experiences from the “background” array. Religious services with experiential involvement, rather than passive receptivity, can help increase memorability.

Next, I want to take time to explore those experiences–through contemplation, meditation, attention–so that their profiles are raised. Spending even one minute during a funeral service in silent recollection of the person who has died helps celebrate their uniqueness and solidify their memory.

Third, I want to take advantage of the links that already exist — between the sound of the Shofar and the memory of the taste of honey, for example — to help keep the themes of the Jewish Holy Days in sharper focus.

According to a recent Scientific American article (“Memory’s Intricate Web”, Alcino J. Silva, July, 2017), older mice have more difficulty linking memories than younger mice do. I’m a mammal, larger than a mouse, but still one with more challenges linking memories than I did when I was younger. But, if I accept the challenge to intentionally remember, Zachor, then my recollections will be more accessible, stronger, and, I hope, even sweeter.

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