Something about memory

Once you can imagine how images and sounds get turned into bits of binary code, which you can then play back on a cell phone, you can begin to conceive of memory. Brains experience the world as a pattern of firing neurons—small chemical explosions in our heads that can be reignited over and over again. When Yeats writes, “I went out to the hazel wood because a fire was in my head”—it’s memory that inspires him on the journey that ends with him picking the “silver apples of the moon… [and] the golden apples of the sun. Memory of what? Who knows.

Memories aren’t just about things—they are about all the thoughts and feelings we had when we encountered those things. I talk to my students about making memories “sticky”: giving them more purchase in their brains. A memory will take greater hold if there is a feeling associated with it. For instance, my emotions (happiness, sadness, everything else) run close to the surface and deeply too—they are whales and not minnows—and when I see a new thing, or learn a new thing, I attach, without even intending to do so, an emotion to the thing. Go figure. I was happy about learning the constitution when I was in high school, or the great chain of being when I was in junior high school (or, or, or), and those emotions made those things more “sticky.” At the very least, learning has made me feel happy, and I am blessed with plenty of sticky happiness.

For Yeats, the odd transformative associations: a hazel wand that becomes a fishing pole; a little silver trout that becomes and glimmering girl; the moth-like stars; the hollow lands and hilly lands; are ways back to memory and to inspiration.  We tend to think of inspiration as a vision of something yet to be made, something that exists primarily in the future, but our future vision relies on what we already have seen.  The inspired poet turns the past into future with protean grace.

When memories fade, it isn’t so much that the patterns dull, so much as the ways back to those patterns fade. Maybe think about it like this… Imagine that you have a room in your house in which you have a beautiful painting. The door to the room has a lock. You lose the key to the locked door. The painting is still in the room, but you cannot see it. You haven’t lost the painting, just the key to the door in which the painting waits for you, still bright and beautiful, still reminding you (but no longer) of the day on which you first saw it, the weather, the person you were with, and what you had done all morning on that day. If only you had the key!

The mnemonic device called the “memory palace” is a means of making memories “sticky” and organizing where and how they are stuck. The stickiness is not simply an emotion, which can be an incredibly random and unpredictable placemarker (we don’t tend to organize our emotions in a clearly coherent pattern so much as ride on them like waves), but a familiar place, in fact some place which we are already memorized, whose dimensions, smells, colors, and secrets are so deeply ingrained that we can call them back instantly and without effort.  Yes, we bind new memories to older established ones.  We put them on coffee tables and window ledges, in drawers of dressers, at the bottoms of garment bags in our parents’ bedroom closet (where they sometimes hid Christmas presents).

I will admit that I like the idea of this device more than the one I use.  My memories are bound to map like structures, to roads and routes, airport terminals and the backs of buses. Sometimes they lead to places, even palaces, but mainly they are blue lines on yellowing maps. “Why do you need to know where we are going?” a friend once asked, “I can tell you where to go.” “Because,” I wish I had answered, “Every road leads to a new memory, and if I don’t know them, not only will I be lost, so will these memories.”  The trick for me is that since the atlas of my memory is fairly large, adding a few new maps, even if they are revisions of older ones, is not particularly onerous or difficult.  Of course, the trick is to revisit those maps, to crack the binding of my memory, head down old roads, and re-visit places.  And new places?  The placement of puddles, the spread of trees across streets, and colors of cars in driveways—all these inscribe themselves on a map, illustrate a chart, and add themselves to me.


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Brian Brennan

I am a writer and a teacher. I have lived in Philadelphia, Binghamton, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Northern Virginia. I have sailed on the ocean and flown over the North Pole. I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

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