Jessica Helfand | From Our Archive

Total Recall

Jessica Helfand, corrupted synapse modelled from tulle and string, 2016

Memories are born with perception, and reside in the brain.

Emotional memories, like fear and love, are stored in the amygdala— an almond-shaped set of neurons located in the temporal lobe, behind the eyes. Conscious memories like dates and facts dwell in the hippocampus, which also processes information about context. We record and encode these memories against contextual reference points—where we were, who we were with—actions and events that tether themselves to things, making them that much harder to forget.

When the brain stores a memory of an event or an action, it records an associated emotion along with it. Scientists refer to this involuntary, yet profound, gesture as “emotional tagging.” Involuntary or not, we tag to remember: where we went, what we did, who we did it with, and why. To not remember is seen as tantamount to failure—a central coping mechanism gone awry. We ridicule ourselves, claiming a brain freeze, a senior moment, a blip on the radar screen of total recall.

Remembering is power. Forgetting is loss. “Practice losing farther, losing faster,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop. “Places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster.” Our memories make us who we are. Without them, our histories vanish. We vanish, too.

Memory can be instinctive, recursive, unbidden. There is muscle memory (sometimes called mechanical or skill memory)—the kind that supports things like walking, playing an instrument, or riding a bicycle—and which isn’t so much a set of learned behaviors as a set of reflexes, an almost choreographic fluency that, once acquired, puts down roots (an amnesiac still remembers how to walk). Learned memory falls under the rubric of semantic memory: it’s where factual information is stored and processed, coded and synthesized. Traumatic memory is the kind that triggers fear, where unwanted emotions are tied to painful recollections of anguish or suffering. Episodic memory is temporal and event-driven— the memory of autobiography, for instance—while sensory memory is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: sense-driven and immediate, which is to say, short-term and swiftly moving, quick to surface, quick to degrade.

Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, was also the inventor of language and words—making her perhaps the original advocate for narrative as a conduit for memory retention, a way to cement a tale by sharing it with others: carpe diem as a literary trope.

In Greek mythology, the act of forgetting was its own peculiar reward: you drank from the river Lethe so that you would not, upon reincarnation, remember your past life. A comparatively early expression of chemical intervention, Lethe was the original ssri.

Memory steers us by anchoring events to emotions, presumed accuracy less a fact than a feeling. To question the veracity of another person’s memory is to illuminate the very subjectivity of truth—the perceptual differences and rationales that both precede and follow a recollected moment. Maurice Chevalier made light of it in song, but memory slippage can prove serious. A personal memory can easily slip from alleged fact into arguable fiction— misremembering as finger-pointing, flawed memory as an act of wrongdoing or misconduct. If two people share a memory, might they also choose to tag it differently? How, in fact, could they do otherwise?

For the memoirist, truth can be slippery—a retelling of factual evidence reframed as a series of narrative vignettes—under-reported, weirdly embellished, all of it harmless enough, until someone calls your bluff. Plagiarism is not deliberate and tricky so much as porous and accidental. Memory, like the emotions that encode it, is the stuff of idiosyncrasy.

In a computational context, memory is a thing you can buy. And build out. And store for later retrieval. But emotional tags can’t be so easily archived: when human memory dissipates, those connectors are the first casualties, torpedoed by the marred circuitry of billions of corroded neurons.

At a cellular level, Alzheimer’s disease is character- ized by abnormal deposits of a protein fragment in the nerve cells of the brain: the cells clump together as twisted filaments (called neurofibrillary tangles) and cause synaptic blockages that eviscerate reason and language, steal personality, and destroy memory. Slim dentrites—those elegant arteries of purposeful connectivity—become static studies in corroded form.

This is what memory looks like when it is under attack—faded, twisted, and torqued. Even the tag disappears.

This essay originally ran in The Observer Quarterly issue two: the tagging issue.

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