Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Memory 101: The psychology of time travel

I am standing in a hallway - it's a very familiar place to me.  I can hear voices in front of me arguing about what they can and can't have for breakfast.  I know this place all too well, and I know the owners of those voices all too well.

I also know that they are both dead, but that doesn't stop me walking into the kitchen.  They're both there, as I left them in 2009.  The kitchen is as I left it in 2009.  I know John died in 2011, and Ruth died in 2014.  They are my in-laws, much beloved by me.

I can smell that distinct smell of the scullery beyond.  A clammy, slightly damp smell of wet, white plaster.  I see the 10-year old 1 litre bottle of Teacher's whiskey on the top of the cupboard, which has only been slightly drunk.

I smile at them both, and want to cry.  As real as it feels, I know it can't be.  I desperately want to reach out and pull my wife into this place with me.  So she can enjoy this moment with them both.  I smile at them both and say "I just want to stay here a little longer".

The next moment, I wake up.  Unsure of quite what has happened.  It seemed so real, more vividly real than any memory.

Time Travellers Anonymous

We are obsessed by the ideas of time travel.  The truth is we actually time travel a lot - events in the past are often pulling us from the here and now.  The vehicle which enables this though is no Tardis, it's simply our memories.

With a passion unbridled we want to go back and re-experience the past.  But most of all there's a desire to change things - more than anything a desire to change our memories.  Ironically we do that a lot - when we replay a memory we do actually re-experience it, but we also tend to re-edit it as well, often in a manner which is more favourable to ourselves.

It's important to understand just how rotten our memory is at this, and how easily it can be corrupted.  This is quite a scary thing, because we rely heavily on our memory, our memory is essentially our identity.  And this can cause us to feel quite flustered when other people's account of an event is different to how we remember it.

Our memory is fallible - it's not perfect, but it also can easily be corrupted.  We like to think of memory as being "tape recorder details" of event but the truth is we remember just a few things about a certain event (if we're lucky), and have a habit of filling in the gaps.

Remember, every time we access a memory, we're re-experiencing it. Often there are large holes in our memory (we tend to remember only a few thing - if we're lucky), and we just "fill in the gaps".  But like a crazy game of Chinese whispers, each time you access it, you have the potential to shift it subtly.

Need an example of how bad it can get?  I virtually repeated the same sentence, just a few sentences apart - and a good number of you won't have noticed!

Here's a couple more examples examples ...

The Green Polka Dot Blouse

I can remember my first date with the future Mrs Talks - it was at Bas's Wine Bar in Aigburth.  I remember clearly choosing out my best clothes to be seen to impress.  About two months into dating, my wife put on a green, polka dot blouse - and said "do you remember this?" but I didn't.  She told me it was the shirt she'd worn to our first date.

Well, my brain knew this was important, and filed it away - just in case she asked me again.  But the funny thing is, when I think back to that first date, I see her in that polka dot blouse.  How can I not remember two months after, yet 20 years later see it clearly?  Having been told (and it being impressed upon me), I altered my memory to include it.  It's subtle, but it changes.

That Roller Skating Date With Julie Lewis

Talking about going back in time to change things ... I have a friend from school called Julie Lewis, who I had a huge crush on.  I asked her out a lot, but it never happened - there was a huge pang of misery when I learned several years later that she'd married and was having a baby whilst I was very much single.

Another example of spurned love ... so why do I have a memory of us on a date?  This one is a bit crazy.  For sure we went places together (we were friends), and occasionally just us.  But I have a vivid memory of us going roller skating as a date in Derby.

I think what happened is our youth group went roller skating, but I only remember interacting and skating with Julie.  This could paint me as a massive jerk, but I might even have been dating someone else at the time, and she might have been there.  But for some reason my memory has only kept and "framed" from that event my interactions with Julie, and in such a way to make it "like a date".

The date that wasn't.

Memories - handle with care

All of this shows that memories really are an odd form of time travel.  They reprocess parts of our past through our senses.  They have the potential to take us clearly out of the here and now - even as I've been writing this article, I've noticed myself occasionally losing focus of where I am, "lost in the past".

As we've alluded to, we even have the potential to rewrite the past, to create a little alternate reality bubble for our past.  A reality which might not align with everyone else's experience of the same events.

We'll explore some implications of this in a follow-on post.  But for now, I just want to acknowledge the power, pull and quirkiness of memories, especially when they are the only way to reconnect with people we've lost.

To explore more about this subject, find the links below.  And remember, you promised on Twitter to buy my book ...

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