On Memory

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For the second time today, I’ve left the pot of water boiling on the stove. It sat there, bubbling away, until the last drop of water sizzled out, the kitchen filled up with a concerning hot-chemical smell, and the inside of the pot turned a sickly white color. I discovered this scene when I casually ambled back into the kitchen, totally unaware that anything was amiss…until I sniffed the air and caught sight of the pot.

Aaaand cue the shame and amusement. Ashamed because I know it’s dangerous to leave the stove on, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve forgotten to turn it off this week. Amused because it’s pretty hilarious to forget something so simple. Turns out everything is gonna be okay, because my 82 year-old grandma is teaching me how to not forget.

Apparently electric stoves can cause electrical fires, which you can’t put out with water. I did not know this before sitting down to write this, so yeah, I’m glad I know now. I guess you’re supposed to use baking soda. Who would’ve known. Side note: I am absolutely floored by the number of uses baking soda has. Almost every time I ask Google how to do some daily activity, the answer is “use baking soda.” Get a grease stain out of a shirt? Throw baking soda on it. Cat pee in the carpet smelling up your hallway? Shake some baking soda on that shit. Rusty pan? Baking soda. Gunky sink? Baking soda. Clogged garbage disposal? Make a volcano by dumping baking soda and vinegar in there! (This is not even a joke – I actually looked this up once, tried it, and it worked). Pro tip.

Anyways.

So I keep leaving pots on the stove until they boil out. The irony of this is that I’m living with my grandmother, who does not leave pots boiling on the stove, and who is dealing with the lasting effects of a stroke. She is fascinated with the ways her mind has changed in old age: she mixes up opposite concepts (lemons with limes, hot with cold, dark with light) and sometimes will do the thing opposite to what she wanted to do. She says that since our memory of binary concepts lives in the same part of our brain, it’s difficult for her to separate them. It’s like you’re reaching into a single dark cupboard, feeling around for two identical cups. They might be different colors, but they feel exactly the same. At least that’s how I imagine it might feel like.

She also talks about how it’s often difficult to recall words (I imagine this like trying to draw water out of a deep well full of lily pads and cattails with a small bucket, but she’s the only one who knows what it’s actually like) and how her short-term memory is less powerful than it used to be, and more selective.

So just to recap: who is the one leaving pots on the stove? It’s me. Me, the 25-year-old whose frontal lobe JUUUUST BARELY firmed up into its full-fledged adult form. I have a newly-minted brain. So what’s going on here? I have no idea, but I find it intriguing, so here are some musings on memory.

Memory is a fickle thing. It turns out that most of us remember in stories, not in concrete accounts of exactly what happened. Each time we recall something, dredging it up from our well of past experiences, we handle it, shape it, and share it. We mix up the memory while fitting it into our current belief systems and habits. When we put it back, it’s more of a story than before. It’s a reflection of our identity.

In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk invites us even deeper into the confusing world of memories and recollection. He describes a study in which veterans were interviewed directly after returning home from the Vietnam war, and then again years later, when they were in their 80s. In their old age, the healthy vets gave very different descriptions of the war than when they were young and fresh out of battle. Over the years, they had moulded their memories to fit nicely into their current identity. They had a core self, and their recollections had become fully transformed by it.

Conversely, the vets who developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder gave THE EXACT SAME descriptions of the war when they were 80 years old as when they were 20. They told the same story. Their memories (of the traumatic event) were frozen in time. Here’s the crucial difference between the vets with PTSD and the vets without: for vets with PTSD, memory was not transformed by identity. In fact, the memory itself, stuck forever in its original form, becomes a permanent part of their identity. Not the other way around.

People with PTSD don’t just have trouble integrating our memories with our current core self. We also have trouble with basic memory functions. Specifically, PTSD affects the first stage of memory function: initially acquiring and learning information. This is very crucial when we’re trying to remember something in the short-term. Like returning to the stove a few minutes after putting the water on to boil to pour our tea, for example.

All this memory gobbledegook may have something to do with why my grandma is the expert on memory in this household (besides the fact that she has a PhD in psychology from Columbia). She’s had many more years of practice not remembering things. She knows the secrets. The solution? Don’t use your memory at all. Just use your senses. Sensory memory comes before short-term memory on the path to storing information in our brains. Use a physical habit that takes the place of needing to remember. Stay in the room. Don’t let yourself leave while the pot is on the stove. Keep it within sight. And voila! No need to remember a thing.

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