Living And Achieving For The Memories

However imperfect our memories may be.

Yesterday, I caught the first episode of The Mind, Explained, by Vox.com, on Netflix. I was surprised to see anything at all from Vox on Netflix, so I was curious enough to watch the first episode, Memory, Explained. I was really impressed with the presentation and the way the episode progressed. I was also shocked at the empirical data that shows just how inaccurate our memories can be. And I started to look again at my own memories.

I can name every one of my elementary school teachers. I remember how so many of my teachers called me “Mr. Dunn”. I remember the school principal and the hayrides in the back of his restored 1920s pickup truck, something that would be totally illegal today. I can recall being in line for free ice cream after scoring 100% on a math test in second grade. I remember when I got married. I remember when my kids were born. And I remember so much in between. But I’m still not very good with birthdays.

I have a mildly photographic memory, too. Long before I got married, I had courted a woman and got her number. I had said I would call the next day, and when the time came, I was in the phone booth, had dropped my dime, but didn’t have that scrap of paper I wrote the number down on. In desperation, I closed my eyes and recalled the scene as my hand wrote the number down, then I read the number from that image, and punched the numbers. And she answered. But I don’t remember that number now.

Throughout my life, I’ve passed milestones and had fun times with my friends. I’ve got memories of unbelievably difficult challenges in my life, too. There are even some ideas that I can vividly recall someone else telling me. But I have a hard time remembering faces and voices. Some voices I remember very well, some not so well. And most of what I can remember seems like an idealized, dramatized version of my life.

I look around me now to see the overachievers racing to their next victory. I see the trophies, the awards, the giant placard sized prize checks. I see the confetti and the balloons. I see the buildings going up in the name of some titan of industry, with the name of that titan on the building. I’ve seen inaugurations, swearing-ins, weddings, award ceremonies with cameras flashing, and the applause for Lady Gaga.

On YouTube I found a very interesting character, Ronnie O’Sullivan. This is a man who has perfected the 147, the maximum break, in a game of Snooker. I’ve seen many videos of him slowly and methodically clearing the table. 15 red balls, 6 colored balls all cleared without missing a shot. Every time a red ball is potted, a colored ball must be potted. And the colored balls are replaced every time they are potted for a run of 36 shots without missing. And O’Sullivan holds the record for the fastest maximum break and a lifetime record of 15 maximum breaks in professional competition. Great memories, huh?

A recent study shows that immediate playback of an event can change how we remember the event. Instead of kids remembering their first-person experience, they remember the event as it was played back. Their memory is altered by the experience of watching the recording. As a father, I leave the recording of milestone events to others when I can so that I can just enjoy the event and remember it my own way.

If our memories are so inaccurate, what are we doing all this for? Why are we climbing corporate ladders, winning gold medals and what are we working until we’re 64 for?

I think we do it all because we’ve got nothing better to do. We might as well win one more award before we die. Might as well make another million while we’re still filtering air and water. Might as well climb mount Everest, swim the English Channel, walk the Appalachian Trail, and surf the 60' waves at Mavericks before we’re too old to do it. We’ll have great memories, won’t we?

I also think we do it because we can’t just rest on our achievements. And our memories tell us, “Been there, done that.” I think we do what we do because we enjoy the uncertainty. We enjoy the feeling we have before taking on a daunting task, not knowing for sure if we can do it. A memory of what we have done is a certainty, a challenge before us is uncertainty.

As we age, our memories become fuzzy, hazy. Our impression of our memories fades with time as our capacities diminish. And still, there are some people who want to be immortal. Numerous dystopian movies have been done on the plot of seeking immortality. An entire television series, Altered Carbon explores the idea of consciousness immortality. In the series, people carry their entire consciousness using alien technology that allows them to transfer their consciousness from one body to another. And the quest for immortality never stops, even in real life. A search for immortality will yield millions of results in a fraction of a second on Google.

“You can’t take it with you” is a cultural refrain about the quest to accumulate wealth. The same is true for our memories. We really can’t take them with us when we die. Not as far as I know. So I question not only the unbridled accumulation of wealth, but I also question the continual pursuit and accumulation of “good” experiences. Our tiny brains can only hold so much, and when we die, we’re only going to see what we can actually remember, played back in the last 7 minutes of life.

The only thing I know for certain is uncertainty. I live for the moment, not for the memories, not for the constant gratification of positive experiences. And I don’t live for the anticipation of more to come. The past is gone. The future is not here yet. The only thing that we can do is to stay in the present. And when the day is done, and I rest my head on my pillow, I let that day, and everything that was in it, be enough.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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