I’ve always had a bad memory. I can’t remember if it was bad when I was really young, because I don’t remember being really young, but I’m sure it’s been a problem for a while. When I hear people say that their first memory was when they were 4 or 5 years old, I assume that they’re lying. I’ve even heard people say that they have vague memories of being even younger than this, but I outright refuse to believe such nonsense. How can someone else remember being an age where their entire diction was no larger than 200 words, yet my first memory is of being 28 and being diagnosed with cancer? But in all seriousness, I think my first memory is probably when I was about 10. Even that might be generous. It really is that bad. I have vague feelings that I remember things, but they don’t translate into anything useful. I think I remember going to school in Hemel Hempstead when I was probably 5 or 6, but if I’m being honest with myself, I think I’ve just seen a picture of myself from around this time, and am misinterpreting my memory with the scene in that picture.
A few years ago, I read a book (I can’t remember what book, and that isn’t another joke) written by the man who holds the world record for reciting the most numbers of Pi accurately from memory. It I remember correctly, which I probably don’t, it took him over an hour of standing at the mic and calling out number after number before he got one wrong. The story blew my mind. Not because I was impressed that someone could do that, although I was quite impressed, but because it was even a thing. If your memory is that good, shouldn’t you be using it for something useful? Why is remembering Pi useful? Why is creating an entire event around it useful? I guess not everything has to be useful. If I could remember something that well, I’d want to make a spectacle of it. I bake cake after cake at the minute and I’m diabetic, so I eat very little of any of them, feeling too guilty to do so. That isn’t very useful. It’s fun, though. He probably thought reciting Pi was fun… It probably is fun when you can do it that well.
Fortunately, we don’t have to remember anything these days because we have Google. For example, I just Googled ‘Book man recite most digits Pi’. If I waffled like that to a stranger in the street, they would assume that someone had been filling my water bottle up with Absinthe. Luckily Google understands me, and according to its limitless knowledge, the book I read was Born On a Blue Day, by Daniel Tammet. I can hardly remember anything about it now. It begs the question – was it a total waste of time to read it if I don’t remember anything from it? Well, hopefully not, as I don’t remember most of the books that I read. Additionally, I don’t remember a lot of things that I have done in my life. If everything I don’t remember is meaningless, then I am notionally disregarding 99% of my life on the grounds that I don’t remember it, so it was irrelevant. Even people with phenomenal memories, like Daniel Tammet, would be disregarding a good 90% of their lives based on this principal, so I guess remembering something isn’t what gives it meaning. The important things probably directly influence you, in a way that is material and tangible, but everything else just helps to shape you in a more subtle way.
That leads me to wonder whether there are things that my brain has gone to great lengths to forget. Sigmund Freud would have emphatically told me that it has, as has everyone else’s. He is a little more successful than I am, so I would tend to agree with him. With regards to one of his more controversial ideas, the Oedipus complex, I’d be a little more cautious to agree. That theory seems to have not stood the test of time quite so well. Sometimes we reject something because it is too truthful, and could present us in a particularly bad light, one that we don’t like to admit about ourselves. Our sense of self-preservation kicks in. We may struggle to accept criticism or, upon hearing someone say that we are a depressing person, for example, we may kick back, telling them that we couldn’t possibly be a depressing person, because we hate depressing people, as if that argument is a tour de force which cannot be disproven.
I can think of times that I have had some negative trait pointed out to me that I have displayed, a trait that doesn’t necessarily agree with the image I have of myself. That has lead me to reject it and tell the person that they’re wrong about me. I’ll then think about it all day, obsessively playing scenarios from throughout my life out in my head, and thinking about how it actually supports what they have said. All of a sudden, the things that I am remembering all concur with what the person said, and I’m forced to admit something that I don’t like about myself. I hope that it has had enough of an impact on me to make me change, and I’ll frequently assess the way that I behave in situations against that critique, but over time I lose focus, and perhaps don’t improve as much as I’d like to. Other times I have, though, and I’ve managed to curtail a behaviour enough that I think I manage to reform it for the better. Other times, I really don’t believe that this person is correct, and I find amusement in their suggestion.
The problem with this method of self-improvement is that memories are notoriously difficult to accurately recall. How we feel during that second that we are thinking about the memory taints it, and our interpretation of it can change from moment to moment, day to day. A memory of a time spent with a significant other can bring plenty of comfort for years. Then, the breakdown of that relationship may cause that memory to taint, and it can be difficult to remember it without feeling a lot of sadness, anger, regret. Sometimes it takes years to look back on it with any fondness at all. Sometimes we never do again, and it will forever hold a negative place in our lives. Those happy memories haunt us, becoming the opposite of what they once were to us. If this is true of the memories that we are conscious of, who knows what becomes of the memories that we’re unconscious of, but that continue to impact our every thought, reaction and motive.
What makes someone like Daniel Tammet’s memory so good, and mine so bad, though? I have an idea of what may have negatively impacted my memory… As a teenager, my modus operandi when “socialising” was to drink myself into oblivion. “Pacing yourself” was a concept that I was aware of, but only came into my life in the form of a flippant joke, as I downed another can of something and became slightly less aware of how much of an idiot I probably looked. Sure, there were a lot of fun times, but I seldom remembered them. They live on in tales told between my friendship group, and I vaguely recall tiny snippets of these memories, probably constructed more from the narrative told than the experience itself. This was my approach to drinking for the best part of 8 years. It was a hard cycle to kick. In some ways, I think I was an alcoholic, but the fact that I established a healthier relationship with alcohol perhaps suggests otherwise. I assume that a true alcoholic can never have a healthy relationship with alcohol. Perhaps it is dependent on the personality type, or the specifics of the abusive relationship with alcohol, or a combination of those factors, and more. What I do know is that my memory is terrible, and I’m willing to bet that excessive drinking played a part in that.
Yet even my memory, plagued with blank spots and steep cliffs, will trigger upon smelling a certain smell, or hearing a certain word. Sometimes I’m not even sure what the memory is, I’m just sure that whatever triggered it means something to me. It’s a strange sensation. I wish I could think of an example, but that would contradict my point. Perhaps it is a familiar smell, one that I smelt during some significant event, but it isn’t enough to trigger an actual memory, it just conjures some emotion or feeling. There are fewer things more powerful than it. It is like that scene at the end of Ratatouille, when the food critic asks the mouse to make a meal for him, and the mouse chooses to make him ratatouille, a standard dish, and one that is not necessarily impressive on its own. But, upon putting the food in his mouth, the food critic remembers being a young boy and eating his mum’s ratatouille, and it brings a tear to his eye, then he announces that this mouse does indeed belong in the kitchen, against all health regulations, because he made a damn good ratatouille. Sure, why not. The central point of the scene is poignant, though. Smells and tastes can evoke a strong feeling. So strong that fast food companies apparently create the smell of their food in a laboratory; it sounds made up, but the smell seems to travel a fair distance from the restaurants, and it does seem to have its own defining personality, one that reminds us of all the other times spent there – with family and friends, through hard times and good. I don’t fall for it, but my memory is so bad that I don’t remember any good times in McDonalds, so I don’t fall for their trickery. There are other smells which evoke powerful memories for me.
The smell of wood being cut really reminds me of my grandad. He was a carpenter and had a cellar filled with big machines and devices used to carve wood. When I was in primary school, we made a model of an aircraft carrier out of wood together. The detail in the model was impressive, with little gun barrels poking out of the sides of the ship. They probably don’t even have turrets there, but I think my grandad was letting me be the creative director on the project. He clearly did all of the hands-on work. After finishing it, we painted it all a monotone blue colour, with no other detail whatsoever, and it looked a little bit unfinished. His field was carpentry, and it held a clear boarder for him. Decorating was a different department.
The smell of incense reminds me of going clothes shopping when I was about 10 years old. At the time, I was obsessed with skateboarding. My dad used to take me and my brothers to a shop called Dazed (I think that’s how it was spelt), and the shop always smelt strongly of incense. I didn’t know what the smell was at that age, or for a long time afterwards. I’m not sure when I eventually smelt it and made the link, but it was years later. “THIS SMELLS LIKE DAZED,” I shouted out once whilst at a friend’s house, after he started burning some. They didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. The sentence came out of my mouth almost involuntarily, and I had to explain to a small crowd what I was talking about, realising as I spoke that it was far more interesting to me than it was to them, or anybody… a little bit like the topic of this post? I’ll make next week’s extra stupid, I promise. If I remember…
My sister Josie claims to remember everything. She will constantly recite back things that we did when we were younger together. I respond with a blank stare, reminding her that I don’t remember anything from 2018, never mind when I was 8 years old. I’m convinced that she just has a more creative mind than mine, and she simply believes that a lot of these things happened because she can see them in her mind, but that they didn’t actually occur in real life. Perhaps that is me being cynical as it is so hard to envision such a world where one actually remembers things, when the one I am used to couldn’t be more different. We’re from the same family, after all. Shouldn’t we have the same propensity for remembering? I guess not. I can’t even remember why I started writing about this in the first place…