Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fifty Years Of Memories

Childhood Memories

Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.
Albert Schweitzer

If anything can, it is memory that will save humanity. For me, hope without memory is like memory without hope.
Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize lecture
"Hope, Despair and Memory," December 11, 1986

It's hard to take in, but I have accumulated a little over 50 years of memories. I am 54, and my first memory dates to around age three. My mother was polishing the linoleum with Johnson wax, using one of those two-brush floor polishers, a green machine that seemed to my young imagination a giant monster trying to devour me. [There is a YouTube clip of a similar machine, circa 1959.] Naturally, I hid under my parents' large double bed, and stayed there for the duration of my mother's cleaning operation.

Such is my earliest memory, which some today would doubt. It's been well-documented by scientists who study such matters that memories are not always reliable, particularly those that are unimportant. The brain seems to play tricks with the mind, the mental processes that are necessary to form an image and capture it in our psyche. The generally accepted scientific theory is that memories are stored in greater detail and with more staying power when they are tied to emotion.

I am sure, with a high degree of confidence that this memory of my mother's floor polishing, is accurate. You see, many years later, when I was a teenager, I recalled the memory and mentioned the incident to my mother. She was surprised that I had remembered it, and said it was indeed true. My wife has memories that are much earlier than mine, which date to when she was barely a year old, and again her mother confirmed her early childhood memories involving a teacup and its placement on a windowsill.

And then there are the exceptional cases of persons who remember all kinds of incidents, even those not tied to emotion. Consider the case of the Californian woman, Jill Price, who can't forget and remembers every detail since she was 12, says a November 2008 article by Samiha Shafy, "An Infinite Loop in the Brain," published in the international edition of Der Spiegel:
No one can imagine what it's really like," says Jill Price, 42, "not even the scientists who are studying me."

The Californian, who has an almost perfect memory, is trying to describe how it feels. She starts with a small demonstration of her ability. "When were you born?" she asks.

She hears the date and says: "Oh, that was a Wednesday. There was a cold snap in Los Angeles two days later, and my mother and I made soup."

Price is sitting in The Grill, a restaurant in Beverly Hills. She's a heavyset woman with blonde hair and big blue eyes. She wears large amounts of jewelry —gold Creole earrings, silver bracelets and a Star of David dangling from her necklace, which she often rubs with her fingers as she talks. Price runs a religious school at a synagogue near Los Angeles.

She says the restaurant has been one her favorites for the past 23 years — since Sept. 20, 1985, to be exact. It was a Friday. "And I was sitting with my father at that table over there, eating garlic chicken. I was wearing a big hat."
Scientists have called this ability or the condition of having a superior autobiographical memory, Hyperthymesia. Having a good memory certainly has its upside in terms of being a reliable witness in court cases and international tribunals, such as in cases of human genocides and crimes against humanity. Bearing witness can act as an effective moral weapon against denial of mass murders sanctioned by the state (e.g. in the 20th century that includes the Jewish Shoah, the Armenian Genocide, the Soviet-instituted purges and the Chinese Great Leap Forward and resultant death by famine). Of course, Holocaust deniers exist, but their efforts are weakened by reliable witnesses and an extensive written and electronic archive.

In that case Elie Wiesel in his Nobel lecture is right to say that "memory will save humanity." Such memories of evil, despite their unpleasant associations, not only remind us that humanity's weaknesses are great, but that human leaders need a reason to make the right moral decision. The failure of memory in such cases are consequential and dangerous.

But there is also a downside, notably on the individual level. Sometimes there is a human need to forget, notably bad memories, traumas and simple insults and offenses. Forgetting is also a necessary condition, say neuroscientists, to allow the brain to keep functioning in a viable and reliable manner. Otherwise, the brain essentially slows down.

So, would you want to remember every detail, important or not?


  1. The world forgets more than it remembers. The meeting of the Arab states in Sudan that led to the Three No's of Khartoum has pretty much been forgotten. Jews in Eastern Europe have no communal memories or traditions to explain why they speak Yiddish. Their descendants in Israel and the New World often do not know what country their grandparents came from.

  2. Prof Jochnowitz:

    Yes, you're right to say that some memories are highly important, including communal traditions that link us to the past so we can move forward. Collective memory is enlivened through the Jewish festivals, such as Pesach.


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