Remembering what never happened

Because of the way the human brain stores and recalls memories, the strangest things can trigger a memory. Sometimes, things that have nothing to do with a particular memory can trigger you to think about it, perhaps because it is in some way tangentally conected. It is a very abstract process and one of the things that both science and psychology continue to investigate.

One of the more interesting things that I have recently learned is that you can have a memory that you can visualise so clearly that it might have happened only a few hours past, but that doesn’t mean that that memory is real. Your brain can actually ‘remember’ things that have never happened. There’s a fabulous word to describe the process – Confabulation. Ther’s an article here on Cracked that words it much better than I can.

As the Cracked article states, many people who have uncovered ‘repressed’ memories of events from their past (this most often seems to be related to some kind of early childhood abuse) have actually just made up (or confabulated) those memories. However, I don’t think that this totally debunks all of Freud’s theories. As much as I hate the majority of what I’ve ever learned about Freud, I have to acquiesce that some of his ideas were, and remain, incredibly insightful (not that all theories come from him, but he was the first major proponent of them).

I do believe that some people genuinelly repress memories, but only because it is apparently something I have done. According to my mother, the first Christmas after she and my father seperated, my paternal grandmother came up with a scheme that involved my brother and I decieving my mum and lying to her, so that we could spend Christmas day with our dad. This deciet and deception resulted in my brother and I coping in markedly different ways. He became even more easily angered and aggressive than he usually was, and I became something of a nervous wreck, especially whenever my mum began enthusing about Christmas, what she was going to be cooking, presents, our maternal gran joining us, boardgames we could play. and other things. The stress of the situation was only exacerbated by the fact that neither Lewis nor myself really wanted to lie to my mother in a way that we must have known would hurt her terribly. Eventually, my mum got the details of my grandmother’s scheme from one of us (it was a very simple plan, really – it would just involve us going to her place on Christmas eve, as already planned, but instead of going home to our mother at six o’clock, we’d just phone her and say we wouldn’t be coming back until boxing day).

Now, as horrible as that story sounds (or so I’ve been told), there is something very odd about it. I don’t remember it at all. When my mum brought it up a few years ago (I think I was asking her why the relationship between her and my paternal gran was so much more acerbic than that of other ex-mother-in-law-relationships) she was shocked that I didn’t know which ‘awful Christmas thing’ she was talking about, and I was shocked to learn that my gran could do something like that (though having had several years to mull it over, I’m aware that my shock was misplaced).. But I can’t remember it at all, even after really straining my memory to breaking point, there isn’t a single thing about that Christmas that I can remember. Incidentally, my brother can’t remember this either but he admits to being unable to remember very much at all before he was about fourteen.

The only indication of this having impacted on me in any way is the sense of dread foreboding I often get when going out somewhere. I used to get it when going to a friend’s sleepover for example, this feeling that I should have stayed home with my family instead. I get it these days if I’m leaving my friends to do something else or see someone different, that I should just be staying where it’s safe and comfortable. It makes me want to get on the very next train home, or to cut my visit short somehow. Even when I know I’ll enjoy what I’m doing.

What I’m trying to point out is that memory is an incredibly unreliable source. It’s possible to completely forget something that really should have been very important, with quite a large impact on one aspect of my family life. On the other hand, it is equally possible to ‘remember’ something that is not true at all. It’s such an odd concept, being completely able to ‘remember’ something that never happened.

They say that the human brain is the least understood thing in the world, but I think that if the brain was simple enough for us to understand it, we would be too simple to want to.



It occurs to me that this blog entry came about of me wanting to write about something that hasn’t made an appearence at all, so I’ll write about it here, because it is related to memory.

In the bathroom in my house, there is a cupboard on the wall that is shared between myself and my two housemates. It’s made of stained pine, I think, and must be a fairly new addition to the house, as you can still smell the wood when you are stood near it. When you open the door, the wood smell gets blown out at you, along with the scent of a housemate’s aftershave, Old Spice. There is something about the combination of these two scents washing over me that makes my knees weak. I want to bottle that smell and carry it around with me. It is simultaneously relaxing and arousing, and highly evocative.

However, I don’t know what it’s evoking. It clouds up on the edges and in the corners of my memory, tantalizing me with the promise of reliving some divine moment. Unfortunately, that memory is out of reach, blocked off, or perhaps not even real. There is just something about the combination of the woody, natural smell of the cupboard, and the intoxicationg scent of Old Spice aftershave that makes me want to go and make love with my boyfriend, or have a barbeque with my friends, or go running through a field with my old dog. I just don’t know why.