The diary that we all carry about with us
June 28, 2010 12:21 PM   Subscribe

How much of your life do you remember?

I'm not sure how my ability to remember my life compares to that of other people. It's become somewhat urgent that I figure out whether the way that I remember is typical or aberrant, and for that I'd need some basis of comparison. I'd very much appreciate your input on the subject.

How well do you remember the events of last month, last year, five years ago, your childhood? Do you retain full mental movies of important scenes, or sketchy details? Do you have full-color pictures of people from your past, or have you forgotten their faces? Do you have scenes, sounds, odors, textures? Are the stories that you tell about your past backed up by images, or are the stories all that's left?

(This was referred to previously, but I'm looking for more of a basis for comparison.)

Thanks for your help.
posted by MrVisible to Grab Bag (46 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have a terrible memory. I'm not a "sentimental" person, meaning I don't take many photos/videos to document stuff, I don't journal, and I spend very little time telling stories about my past to other people. It's not clear if that's a symptom or a cause of my awful memory, but I bet they're related somehow. I'm more concerned about where I am, and where I'm going, then where I was (and that's usually, but not always, a good thing in my opinion). I also moved far away from my family when I graduated college, so I don't have the constant reinforcement of shared memories that others who spend a lot of time with their families might.

I remember big events in a vague sense, but rarely do I remember any details apart from little vignettes (that are usually equal parts memory and new fabrication). I have, sadly, completely forgotten people that were once close friends of mine. I'm too young for Alzheimer's, but I should still probably ask my doctor about my memory problems. Sometimes they cause issues in my marriage; on several occasions I've neglected my commitments. On the other hand, I'm less tied to who I was in the past, making change easier. I feel it's been easier for me to overcome dogma I once held and I've grown considerably in the past decade. On the other hand, my lack of attachment has turned some of my friendships rather cold. Pros and cons to everything, I guess.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 12:36 PM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


Mostly I have bits and images. I get movies and faces that come to me from time to time when they're relevant to a discussion. Outside of a few clear memories, I can't call them up without some kind of prompt. When this happens, it's as if someone has shone a light on the dark, lonely reaches of my mind.
posted by smorange at 12:37 PM on June 28, 2010


I usually have a hard time remembering what I did, say, last weekend. I envy people that not only can remember what they did but also, for example, what they were wearing on a specific day.

I have come to realize that the memories *are* there, they just require more effort from me.

If someone that has "better" memory than me starts talking about what we did together last week and describes what they were wearing, then I'm even able to recall that.

If I don't get any help, I need to go back one step at a time. It is like I need tiny mental connections to be made and then my memory is easier to access. Hope that makes sense.
posted by edmz at 12:37 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


All of the above - I often get comments along the lines of "How do you remember all this stuff" etc.

I was wondering the same thing the other day - it has a large impact on how I interact with others - they don't recall things, whereas I do, and, more often than not, my recollection is not something...'useful' shall we say.

I do not have a 'photographic' memory, not at all - but I can pull really strange specifics, from as far back as 3 years of age. Sentences, colours, the lot. Smell is a very strong 'key' to anything - I can stop and sniff, generally, and 9 times out of ten relate whatever I smell to a memory - right now I smell wet grass that reminds me of one of our old houses for example.

My ability to actually *remember* is no more special than anyone elses - the generation game score would be average!

Whether the way you recall is 'regular' or 'aberrant' is surely de facto? Unless you are using a concious system type thing?
posted by DrtyBlvd at 12:40 PM on June 28, 2010


My wife and I are very, very different. She has no "internal movie" at all and barely remembers her day-to-day childhood. I can name all of my teachers. She can't name any.

How well do you remember the events of last month, last year, five years ago, your childhood?

For me, it's like the movie starts at a specific moment when I was 3 years old (in a meadow near a campground in Banff National Park, holding hands with my mother), and while I can't remember every single day since then, I have the internal movie, the full color faces, scenes, sounds, etc, you mention. Very often, when remembering something, I can also "watch the movie" of everything else that happened at the same time as the event I'm recalling.

Example:

"When did the Normans conquer England? The year 1066, and there's Mr. Roche from 10th grade Western Civ class telling me this. He's also one of the school's football coaches, so he's wearing blue 'coach' shorts that unfortunately show off his varicose veins. He uses multiple colors of chalk on the chalk board to illustrate different kinds of points. The date '1066' is in orange on a green chalkboard."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:43 PM on June 28, 2010


I have a fairly visual memory but it's often attached itself to photographs so it's hard for me to figure out what I remember and what I'm filling in from data I have. Like do I really remember that shirt or do I just know I had it because there's a picture of me wearing it. I have a sort of highlights reel of events from my childhood on up. Snippets that I remember and yeah they're color movies for the most part but heavily influenced by my emotions about whatever happened, sort of the way things feel (to me anyhow) in dreams. I tend to remember things that happened with strong emotions or strong sensory input. So I can remember lying in a field and looking at the sky and vaguely what that was like but strongly how it made me feel.

When I've spoken about this with my friends, there is definitely a division where a lot of my friends [mostly men but I don't know if this is relevant or not] remember most of their pre-puberty years as a sort of third-person experience, as in not happening to them, in their memories. I remember most of my stuff as first person, remember seeing it through my eyes and hearing it through my ears.

Of course we all think our memories are more accurate than they are. I'm always surprised going over distant past events with my sister, someone who I think is as credible as I am, and having us have totally different [as in can't-coexist different] memories of events and sort of looking at each other and thinking "Huh."
posted by jessamyn at 12:49 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's hit and miss for me - just trying to remember important things in my life, I might score 50% if you could quiz me. For example, I can remember my first kiss, but I can't remember how my first girlfriend and I met (in fact, I couldn't remember this when we were still dating - she always had to tell the story). I can't remember my first day in Germany when we moved there, but I do remember my first day at school when we moved back to America (probably because it was embarrassing and full of frustration and anxiety).

Strong emotion, especially negative emotions, tend to burn certain moments in my brain. I used to be pretty obsessive about all my screwups, so I would replay those scenes over and over in my head wondering how I could have done things differently.

I'm much better with really random details. Off the top of my head right now, I can tell you that my kindergarten classroom was across the hall from the cafeteria, and I remember how to get to my childhood home and my grandmother's old home. I have a very good image of all the houses I've lived in, I remember that our teachers in elementary school surveyed the kids about what they wanted when they installed a new jungle gym, my father had a white Honda Civic (with a manual transmission) when I was growing up, and one of my friend's dad worked for Philip Morris.

I'm not sure what any of that means. Photographs definitely help jog my memory.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:50 PM on June 28, 2010


My memory is very sketchy when it comes to how events played out. I might remember that a particular event occurred at a particular time, if I'm lucky -- but I'd say that rather than stories with no images, I generally have images with no coherent story. It's like trying to remember a dream at times. I'm constantly amazed by people who can tell long, detailed stories about events from years ago. My stories are always succinct because I can't remember enough to make them longer!

I remember people well, though. Occasionally I'll forget a face, but not too often. And my sensory memory is good. There are lots of sensory memories floating around in my head; they just lack narrative structure.
posted by spinto at 12:53 PM on June 28, 2010


I don't remember very clear "photo-like" images, but I remember a lot of emotions. When someone tells a story about something that happened, I remember what I was feeling at the time - like my mom's story about when she heard 5-year-old me tell a friend I was playing with about how mommy said I couldn't have that lollipop or my teeth would rot, and mom's talking about herself and me, and parenting, and the jolt of seeing the world from my perspective, but all I remember is my classmate laughing at me and how totally embarrassed I was, and I really wanted to go home but mom made me stay and eat a lollipop. But all this fades over time, and eventually the memories of feeling embarrassed then are slowly replaced with memories of feeling embarrassed when she told that story, until 30 years later it's all one uncomfortable blur.
posted by aimedwander at 12:54 PM on June 28, 2010


My memory is very similar to Cool Papa Bell's-my own personal movie. Sometimes it is a great thing. Sometimes, it's like I'm right there, or the camera is zooming in. Other times, I relive moments in my life, complete with the emotions, that many would try to block, supress, or otherwise forget.
posted by bolognius maximus at 12:59 PM on June 28, 2010


My memory is hit or miss. I remember some things with astonishing clarity -- what truck I played with at 5, for example, or theme songs from programs I watched in the 1950s & 1960s -- and other things vaguely or not at all. My short-term memory seems less effective than my long-term memory especially as I get older. I am very good at trivia and less so at larger things. I have a very good visual memory; scents and textures also stay with me. I don't know if any of this is helpful... photos are good memory-jogs for me, as well. My memory tends to be visual, as I said, and in short scenes or static "sets." I also have a very good auditory memory and can remember almost every song I have ever heard. I can remember lyrics well, and can often tell where I first heard a song.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 1:01 PM on June 28, 2010


From around age 2-4, I remember random short scenes. I have quite a few of them and I remember them vividly. I can easily picture a number of people from my first grade class and remember their names, even though I haven't seen any of them in decades.

From late childhood thru most of my teens I remember longer scenes, and often have more complex memories of how I thought or felt about this or that thing while it was happening. I am sometimes surprised by memories I hadn't thought about in years... things from my daughter's childhood especially... and I wonder sometimes why those memories are not more vivid or why I don't think about them much. I worry about what I might have forgotten, or what might be there that I'll never recall unless something random thought or event happens to bring some some long-forgotten memory to mind.

When I'm having a memory I usually strongly remember what I saw, heard, felt (emotionally) and thought; I don't generally remember any textures or what I was smelling unless that was a major component of the memory itself. However, when I smell various smells in the present, it will often bring up a memory from the past. For example, any time I smell hot tar it reminds me of playing outside in the summer when I was a kid.

I usually remember important things from the recent past, and things that were for some reason particularly memorable (something funny, something that hurt my feelings, conversations that seemed significant at the time.) I might be able to remember what I wore on a given day last week or what I had for lunch if I thought about it real hard, but probably not any further back than that.

I remember a lot of what I am told. I could tell you the name of my husband's high school, where he was born, the first name of his 4 most significant girlfriends, and why the name "Lisa" is a running joke between him and his mother. (He struggles to remember my middle name and I doubt if he could come up with a single anecdote from my childhood. )
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 1:03 PM on June 28, 2010


I have excellent recall of faces, movies, music, and books. I regularly get in arguments with friends who have normal recall ("Oh, hey, it's the dude who was in movies x, y, and z." "No way, you're thinking of other dude." "No, you're wrong." "TO GOOGLE!") God bless the internet for settling disputes.

But my memory of my life itself is a bit like browsing wikipedia - expert knowledge mixed in with unverifiable, possibly fabricated content (and it's sometimes difficult to tell the difference), and the real interesting stuff seems to only come from long strings of tangents: One moment I'm trying to remember where I left my hammer and a few mental "page clicks" later, I'm suddenly thinking about the childhood forts I used to build and how much trouble I once got in for lobbing tinker-toy hand grenades at my older sister.
posted by Wossname at 1:06 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Maybe we all have good memory, it is just that they are stored in dark, dusty caverns of our brains and we need help finding and retrieving them. For me it takes a good flashlight, vacuum cleaner and a few hand tools to pull those memories out. Like others above I have a tremendous connection between smells, sounds and memories. I can run across a smell that reminds me of my grandmothers kitchen when I was five years old or younger. Music also pulls the memories out for a lot of people. If I can combine a few of those senses I can pull out a full color movie from my mental archives.

I have had some lucid dreams lately and have started to ponder how and where those dream movies come out of my stored memories. The strangest is those dreams that involve close interaction with people and places I could swear I have never met or seen before, as if my mind is good at inventing fiction, high detail fiction.

Most of the responses above point to sensory perceptions and stimulation triggering movies, mental photographs. I must have a huge store of photographs in my head. I can recall a "corner store" I visited 50 years ago in great detail. Haha, maybe it is because I always bought candy at that storea t 7 years old, so even taste was a sensory connection.

I'll bet we all have great stores of memories, just need the right stimuli to retrieve them.
posted by nogero at 1:21 PM on June 28, 2010


I think maybe people have different types of "memory strengths." I don't necessarily recall what I or other people were wearing- but I can repeat pretty much verbatim conversations I was involved in months or years ago. I'm often surprised at how wildly people's recollections can differ from mine- they tend to remember conversations we had differently, or else not at all.

I'm a writer, so that may have something to do with it, although I'm not sure if it's cause or effect.

As far as early memories, most of the distinct ones start around age four. I was born in 1975, and I can remember gas lines, Mt. St. Helens, and being terrified Skylab was going to fall on me personally.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:26 PM on June 28, 2010


Do you retain full mental movies of important scenes, or sketchy details? Do you have full-color pictures of people from your past, or have you forgotten their faces? Do you have scenes, sounds, odors, textures? Are the stories that you tell about your past backed up by images, or are the stories all that's left?

I've always had a good memory, in that I don't tend to forget important things and can recall fairly obscure details after relatively long periods of time. To a large extent though I think I only remember ideas and certain details of things, rather than anything approaching the documentary quality of a movie or even a photo. I know what my room vaguely looked like and what toys I played with as a kid, so I can "remember" playing with toys, but it's more like imagining what it was like than actually retaining a movie-like copy of the events. It's kind of like in the movie Synecdoche, New York, when I try to imagine something that happened in my life it's just a fake facsimile cobbled together from details of what I know or think occurred, rather than something I can passively let play back. I know growing up one of my earliest vivid memories was of spitting up blood in a parking lot after a pool accident. I can't remember it like a photograph anymore, although I know enough about it that I can create a generic scene in my head that looks like what I imagine the old memory would have been. I think these sorts of generic replacements and imagined details are what cause things like mistaken eyewitness testimony and the various studies that show very vivid memories are often contradicted by actual recorded facts.

Also my memories tend to be very associative, so it's hard to purposely recall everything on command rather than being triggered to remember them. For example, I can't recall all of the items that were on a restaurant menu I read last week, but if you give me the menu with a few items changed I can probably tell you which ones weren't there when I read it. When I would take tests in school I would sometimes try to picture what the textbook or study guide looked like that had the answers, because remembering parts of it would trigger the part of my brain that stored those details. I wouldn't actually be able to see the page like a photograph or remember reading it like a movie, but I would be able to recall certain aspects like how information was structured into paragraphs or bullet points that would trigger remembering the answers.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:34 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I remember some very specific things from very early childhood - like, all the way back to toilet training. Mostly brief snapshots and scenes rather than complex narratives: I remember parts of commercials that were on TV when I was three, the outside (but not the inside) of the house of the neighbor who babysat us, things like that. I remember that we drove down Jackson Street on the way to my older brother's kindergarten class, and I remember he had a classmate named Desiree. My memory since then is generally pretty good, but it's been sort of a series of brief scenes rather than a continuous movie. I can't always place memories in their correct time: unless there's a specific anchor like where I lived or what grade I was in, my memories are from I was "about 8," or "2007, wait, 2008" and so on.

On the other hand, I have some very clear childhood memories that aren't real. I remember going home from school early when I was about four because of an eclipse, and the eclipse happened like a light switch flipping on and off - day, night, day, night, and since it stuck on night I had to go to bed. This couldn't possibly have happened the way I remembered it, and my mom recalls nothing even resembling that event, but it is so real to me. I've also asked my parents about hazy memories that seemed odd or dreamlike, and they replied, "I remember that, that was on Sesame Street."

However, I suck at remembering things about other people. Names, faces, and, with friends, details like where they grew up or what the hell they just got their Ph.D. in.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:44 PM on June 28, 2010


I've always had a great memory for sights, sounds, words spoken--"full mental movies of important scenes", as you say. But not like the proverbial "photographic" memory; stuff fades a little eventually. I do really well with facts, too; in fact, I almost always remember when and where I learned something. The memory of learning might as well be the fact in my mind. Faces are also easy--I can remember hundreds of people from high school, and even a lot of people from elementary school. (I am 28 now.) Like many of the other commenters, I have a lot of associations and cross-references between memories--I can remember where I was last time I heard a song, or the first time I heard it, etc.

I do feel like my memory for those things has dropped off maybe like 5-10% or so in the last few years. I haven't yet been shocked to discover that I don't remember something, though; the amount of retained detail has always seemed at least proportional to the importance of the event. (And sometimes I recall an excessive amount of detail for insignificant stuff.) But it feels like the bar for deciding what gets recorded for posterity is a little higher recently.

Smells and tastes I've never done as well with. It's like those inputs don't get recorded unless they're relevant to the subject (the first time I tried a particular food, for example).

I don't remember anything before age 3 or so. Even when I was a kid I didn't; it felt like I had "woken up" sometime around age 3.

Somewhere around age 13-16 there was another big sea change, where I started to feel disconnected from my past self. I still remembered the stuff that happened before then, but I couldn't really get inside my younger self's head--what had I been thinking about all those years? What were my goals? How did I think the world worked? It felt like I had grown up, I guess. I actually feel more connected to my kid self now than I did when I was a teenager; rather than a sharp disconnect, I now perceive a gradual but continuous personality change, and I can get inside the head of my former self at any age, if I try hard enough.

For a while, through high school and most of college, it felt like I could remember everything that had happened since the second awakening; I seriously wondered if I'd ever forget anything again. But of course I did start forgetting things from that period.
posted by equalpants at 1:50 PM on June 28, 2010


Full blown detail including who was there ,where they were standing, what were they wearing, what was said.

I remember when Elvis was live on the tv from Hawaii. I was born in 1971 mind you.

I remember still being in a stroller given my first candy--Tootsie Roll. It was in our yard and I was facing towards the alley. I also remember scaring my mom by showing her worms I dug up.

I also remember things I wish I forgotten while growing up. I'm in therapy for that because PTSD is so lovely.
posted by stormpooper at 1:53 PM on June 28, 2010


I've got a good memory, based on my comparing notes with my brother, husband, and friends. The first bursts of memory start before I am two years old--climbing out of my crib and surprising my mother, who asks "How on earth did you get out?"--then they gradually become more frequent, lengthy, and more detailed, with the "main narrative" starting around 4 years of age.

My memories involve all the senses. I can recall what my elementary school cafeteria smelled like, or the 'award' stickers my kindergarten teacher gave us, or the taste of the hot dogs I ate at my friend's house, or what our garden sprinkler sounded like.

Faces are a little harder. It's like they are clear if I only look at them out of the corner of my mind's eye, but once I put my full focus on them, they become more indistinct unless I am very familiar with the person. Kind of like a Monet painting, it gets blurry if you get too close. My mind will fill in the gaps with memories of what their house smelled like or what sweater they were wearing, or the sound of their laugh, etc. so I can form a pretty good composite of a person.

Really long scenes are also harder. My brain will go "ok there's eight year old me at the school talent show, I'm waiting for my turn, someone goes before me [MISSING DATA--would you like a list of likely children? yes/no] I'm playing the piano, the song is [MISSING DATA--replace with "talent show song" file from third grade? yes/no], I'm taking a bow, I walk back to my class, someone says [MISSING DATA: compliment, exact quote unavailable]." So while I can usually recall the basics and other sporadic details from a given event, it's hard for me to recall a perfect, uninterrupted narrative and my mind will often toss in information from other, related memories that it thinks would help flesh out the gaps.

My memory can really be jogged by looking at old calendars where I wrote down activities happening each month. It takes me back almost as well as a diary could.

For day-to-day, my memory is great. My job requires me to keep track of a lot of different things and I've got a lot of mental lists I can zip through. My husband is more absent-minded, so I often have to remember things for him too.
posted by castlebravo at 2:03 PM on June 28, 2010


My recall has two distinct phases. I have pretty vivid memories going back to being around 18-20 months old. Very much in the movie-of-my-life sense. Later in my early twenties, this started to change. I got better at thinking abstractly about things and remembering the overall theme or narrative of events, and eventually better at modifying my own behavior as a consequence, but this seems to have cost me the ability to recall details with as much precision as before. The movie is still there, but presented as a series of important scenes rather than as a continuous narrative. Additionally, where I used to be able to memorize large amounts of arbitrary information by rote (I placed at State in the National spelling bee in 5th grade), I now have trouble remembering things I have committed to digital storage. I would have a hard time remembering my wife's phone number if you asked me, in fact.

Long story short, it appears that the way you use your brain makes significant changes to it.
posted by signalnine at 2:17 PM on June 28, 2010


Be careful when comparing between people; what's being remembered, age difference within a single individual, and differences between individuals, are significant. For instance, I still have a clear mental movie of a tent I was taught to set up over two decades ago, but I don't have that for significant personal events, and my wife cannot -- and could never -- have that kind of mental image for anything she's been taught, but has a memory for significant personal experience I cannot approach.
posted by davejay at 2:33 PM on June 28, 2010


The point being, it's probably more useful to determine how your memory has changed, rather than compare your memory performance to other people.
posted by davejay at 2:34 PM on June 28, 2010


I have very, very spotty and limited memory for anything further back than few years. There are scattered mental "snapshots" of faces or places here and there in the overall blackness, and then I can, with some effort, tie these to a consciously-constructed, laboriously-maintained mental outline of what I doing and where I was living and whom I was interacting with at various points in history. But, really, the past feels, for the most part, pretty well gone.
posted by Kat Allison at 2:54 PM on June 28, 2010


I have a very accurate memory of audio, visual, and olfactory/gustatory experiences, including conversations, reading, and meals.

I think the accuracy comes in large part from my also having synesthesia, so most memories are linked in some way to a different mode of experience. For example, if I'm trying to work out what someone said to me at a meal, it's helpful to recall what I was eating at the time. And if I'm trying to remember the route from point A to B, I'll always remember it if I can puzzle out a conversation I heard along the way or podcast/song I was listening to when I traveled there before.

I tend to do this kind of double-inscribing of memories frequently, so perhaps that's why my memories are more persistent than some people's are.
posted by yellowcandy at 3:00 PM on June 28, 2010


Almost no memories. Sleep and mood disorders can be a life-stealing hell. Very few 'movies', or even clips can be summoned when the corresponding depression is bad. When under pressure I can recall things from last month; last year is much more iffy; five years very unlikely. Almost nothing from childhood. More of my memories are of the snapshot type than movies.

The thing of it is, I can recall this being a problem a very long time before my sleep problems were diagnosed (a decade at least). When sleep is good for an extended period then more memories come back to me, but even then it takes prodding and effort to bring them to conscious recollection. Because of this some of my best times these days are when I can recall some of my best times from before.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 3:44 PM on June 28, 2010


To finish that thought and answer the rest of the questions: Textures, yes; smells yes; and many of the details of events for which I have no memory are just there associated with people telling me that this or that did occur. And sometimes even the stories have to work to come out.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 3:47 PM on June 28, 2010


my mom remembers her life practically from birth. yet she has issues with her memory since menopause.

my memory kicks in full time around middle school. otherwise, not much. i don't even remember my two-years-younger coming home from the hospital, or even her presence until she was about six. we are very close now, so it doesn't mean anything probably, but it's def weird.

my young daughter remembers everything.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 4:07 PM on June 28, 2010


My earliest memories are when I was 2 or maybe a little younger. I'll ask my mom if these things I remember are real of if I just dreamed them, and they're pretty much always real things that happened. None of them are particularly interesting events, just things like going to a public swimming pool and the color of the walls there, or that there was a train near the house we lived in when I was 2, or our neighbors, etc.
I generally have a good memory, but my long-term memory is much better than my short term.
posted by ishotjr at 4:25 PM on June 28, 2010


I'm glad and surprised to see that so many other people remember being two. I remember chewing on the railing of a crib.

I have always treasured my memories, not because they were idyllic but because they are mine, and I love knowing what other people have all forgotten, even the decorations of one room in 1984.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:32 PM on June 28, 2010


I believe I have an exceptional memory- I can recite conversations with pretty good accuracy, remember outfits people wore way back when, and notice things like the fact that a friend I hadn't seen in 4 years had, in the interim, slightly broken his nose so that it leaned juuust a bit to one side. But then again, my boyfriend remembers with complete clarity the first day we met, almost a decade ago- and I have only the vaguest memory of having gone to that gathering at all.
My point is that a person is not necessarily the best judge of their own memory!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 4:33 PM on June 28, 2010


I can remember names forever, but I am horrible at remembering faces. I have some memories of early childhood, but most of my vivid memories start sometime in grade school.
posted by SisterHavana at 4:39 PM on June 28, 2010


You probably remember a lot more than you give yourself credit for: look at all the objects in your room. You can remember how each of them got there, can't you? A trip to Target here, a gift from Mom there, the pencil you found on the sidewalk one rainy afternoon.

Memories don't go away, they just get harder to access.
posted by aquafortis at 4:58 PM on June 28, 2010


My timeline of events is fuzzy, but I do recall certain moments, back to the age of about 10 months. My first conscious memory is of being in a wind-up swing on our front stoop, and getting scared because I couldn't see my mother, and right as I started to panic, she came into view (from my left) and I was relieved. I think this memory dates to pretty much before I as thinking in words. I could draw you a floor plan of every place I've lived, and I've lived in a lot of places -- moved 20 or 25 times as a kid. I pretty much manage the timeline because I can remember the moves in sequence, mostly. There was a confusing chunk around 4th and 5th grades (5 schools in three districts in the 5th grade!)

Memories of events are funny -- I cannot remember some important events (like my 18th or 21st birthday-- alcohol??), while some seemingly mundane ones have stuck with me. I guess it's just perspective on what an "important" event is -- like the first time I heard Hit The Road, Jack by Ray Charles, playing loudly on a car radio next door, when I was maybe two. It stuck with me because that was the first time I was really moved by music. A lot of my strongest memories revolve around music.

I'm also a pack-rat, as far as mementos go, so they can serve as mnemonic devices to an extent, and I journal a bit (since my early teens, sporadically), which I think help fix things in memory.

I could remember every phone number I had ever had, up until the mid 90's, when things like email passwords and IP addresses pushed them out. There was a sudden loss of large amounts of old numerical data, right around the time I started using computers.

Smells can also trigger strong memories, but I understand that's not unusual. I really, really liked a girl named Camille in 7th grade, and I can still remember her perfume exactly, and occasionally, I'll smell something like it that brings her face right back.

Things have gotten more spotty as I've aged, though. I don't remember conversations that friends swear we had six months ago once in a while, and I'v never been very good at remembering where I put shit.

born in '62, gonna be 48 in October.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:45 PM on June 28, 2010


I remember certain things very vividly (my youngest sis being brought home from the hospital, parents screaming and fighting with each other). Other things I remember as general outlines.

My memory is good, but I have tried to block a lot out intentionally. I haven't had a great family life.
posted by reenum at 6:13 PM on June 28, 2010


Can't remember conversations verbatim for shit, not even ones from today, but I can remember the gist.

I can remember lyrics to songs I haven't heard in years if the song starts playing. But it's hard for me to recall how the song starts, lyrics-wise, if you just ask me without hearing the song.

Most of my memories are tied to places because I moved around a lot as a kid, and it helps me to put something in context if I can remember where I lived at the time. I was just asking my husband the other day how he knows when something happened, since he grew up in one house since the age of one.

I can remember things from around age 3, since the first place I remember living was a house we moved to when I was about that age. Nothing before that.

My sister has much better recall than I do. When my dad was divorcing my stepmom, we were discussing things she'd done, and my sister was incredulous that I couldn't remember all the stupid shit that woman pulled. I'm glad I can't, frankly.

I can remember people's birthdays really well, and phone numbers (not so much since cell phones came into my life, though). I also am very good at remembering directions and locations and things like that. Like, if someone asks where we should go to eat, I will start thinking geographically about restaurants that are close to our current location.

I don't remember the MeFi post that finally got me to sign up, though ;)
posted by wwartorff at 6:18 PM on June 28, 2010


One thing to keep in mind about memory is that just because we have a memory that is very strong or vivid or detailed doesn't mean we're remembering what actually happened. It's pretty easy to create a false memory, and when we reflect back on that memory we'll tend to fill in the details ourselves, making it seem more real.

I have several real, vivid memories that I'm now pretty sure are just recreations of photographs I've seen (sure mostly because some of the details I remember can't have actually happened). And I don't believe that my experience is unusual in this. I've also had conversations with other people about events where we both remember significant details differently, but are both equally convinced that our memories are correct.

Most people don't remember what happened in the earliest years of their life, which is referred to as Infantile Amnesia. I guess my first memory was from when I was 3 or 4, but I don't have good context to date it. Having that context, something else that happened at the same time that has a knowable date, is pretty important for constructing your memory timelines, I find.

Also some of what we remember we don't remember remembering until there is some recall cue. Walking to a restaurant once with my family my mother noted that it reminded her of when we were in Hong Kong, seconds after I thought that myself. It was the smell of the restaurant, but exactly what about the smell I have no idea.

I think my general memory is fine, but it's certainly more vivid for significant events, as you'd expect, but only for certain details. I remember pretty clearly what I was doing and where I was when I heard of the September 11 attacks, but not what I was wearing, for example. I remember I was watching a DVD when I got a call to say a family member had been taken to hospital, but not what DVD. I remember calling my mother to ask her to pick up my girlfriend from the airport to take to my PhD graduation, but very little of the graduation ceremony itself. I'm not sure there is much rhyme or reason to what I do and don't remember, but then I wouldn't bet my life on having remembered what I do remember absolutely correctly, either.

With a bit of effort I could remember everything I've had for breakfast and lunch in the last week, but only because there is a fair bit of consistency there, and probably couldn't do the same for dinner. But I can also remember a particular occasion I cooked sausages for dinner six or seven years ago, but only because they ended up giving me food poisoning. Most of the breakfasts in the past week I can probably recall as facts, but not events. I know they occurred, but I probably don't remember any details (or if I do, I'm possibly just making them up).

So, the short answer to 'how much of your life do you remember' is: not as much as I think I do. But I try not to worry about that too much.
posted by damonism at 6:18 PM on June 28, 2010


When she was just old enough to converse well, I'm thinking about 2 & 1/2, I asked my daughter if she could remember being in mommy's tummy. She said "yeah," and when I asked what it was like, she said "Red. and NOISY!"
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:25 PM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


I remember crawling and not yet being able to walk. Some of the memories I have involve certain places that would place me at about six months old. At the same time there are months during my sophomore year of HS that are super fuzzy and feel farther away time-wise than memories of I have of kindergarten.

The baby memories are clear and colorful but are brief and really hard to access.

I recall dreams from childhood more clearly than I do real events for some reason.
posted by marimeko at 6:27 PM on June 28, 2010


I think that the part you remember is your life. The rest meh.
posted by pianomover at 7:08 PM on June 28, 2010


I have a rather poor personal memory now, but I have extremely vivid and detailed memories of childhood. I think this is actually a double edged sword as it will make me almost too empathetic a parent when I have children - I remember the injustices and desires of childhood that keenly. I recently spent a few days with a family that had three little girls (like my family) and found myself wincing as the father scolded his eldest daughter about something - I was the eldest and I knew *so* well how mistreated she must have been feeling.
posted by little light-giver at 9:03 PM on June 28, 2010


I'm 25. I don't remember much from before I was 11. I feel like when I think about things from before then I'm remembering what others have said photos \ home movies of said events. I've thought that since I was 13.

Since then though I feel like my memory is much better. Maybe I don't really want to recall certain things too much.

I can recite trivial conversations nearly word for word from earlier in the day, a week ago. I tend to remember song lyrics after hearing them once or twice. I don't like watching movies more than once usually because I feel like I'm seeing everything before it happens. (Comedy's excluded =)
I can remember 100 different plays that took course during a hockey game I played in, or watched.
It's definitely mostly movie like and visual for me as far as recall. That may be part of the reason the more static type memories seem more "unreal" to me.

I think the way one remembers things can be heavily influenced too. I had a hockey coach years ago that noted to me how he could say where everyone was sitting and what they were wearing at a dinner months ago.
Now I tend to remember many of those details as well and I never made it a conscious effort.
posted by zephyr_words at 10:17 PM on June 28, 2010


I realize that it's somewhat bad form to mark every answer as a best answer, but given the thoughtful quality of the responses and how incredibly useful this thread has been, I just couldn't help it.

Personally, I have scattered, spotty memories of my life; I'll have a scene that I've told stories about, and be unable to figure out where my recall ends and the story begins. I'll remember something I'd long forgotten by association, but be unable to remember important events at all.

I do take pictures and I journal, but sometimes I find that I've totally forgotten the events that I wrote about; it's my handwriting, but it's as if someone else had written it.

On the other hand, there are some events that are easily and readily accessible, in great detail.

I'm good with song lyrics, and I can memorize lines and poetry and quotes without too much effort.

While I do envy those of you with clearer recall, I feel a lot better knowing that my memory seems to fall well within normal parameters. I was worried for a while that everyone had that kind of clarity of recollection, and that there was something wrong about my lack of connection to my past.

I'd love to have the sort of recall that some of you above have, but I'm grateful for the reassurance that I'm not the only one out there with a past obscured by patchy fog.
posted by MrVisible at 9:42 AM on June 29, 2010


When I was a senior in college, I was in a relationship that was so emotionally intense that I obsessed over the precise timeline of every event that occurred within it, sometimes sitting by myself and replaying four months of the tiniest interactions in my head.

After the relationship was over and I started to come out of my intense focus on it, I realized that I could only vaguely remember many episodes from my childhood that I had previously remembered in great detail. I often wonder if that loss of specific, movie-like memories was a result of the intensity of my focus on short term memories during that period.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:06 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Very little.

But I'm a solitary person. I believe we remember memories of memories of memories as rehearsed in conversation. If you share experiences with others, perhaps as part of a family or group of friends, so that you all talk about what you all did all the time ("Remember the time we/you/he/they...?"), you are much more likely to remember what you did because the memories are continually reinforced.
posted by pracowity at 11:41 AM on June 29, 2010


When I think about the past, I remember the general movements in my life and I can recall the general feeling or 'color' of a certain period along with vignette snippets, but I cannot remember events sequentially as if it were a timeline. I think this is quite standard. It reminds me of this quote by Oscar Wilde: "One should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details. Details are always vulgar." However, keeping a journal very consistently for a long time is invaluable, in my opinion. When I read past entries it starts to trigger lots of dormant memories.
posted by aesacus at 9:39 AM on July 5, 2010


« Older orange you glad to see me   |   I'm having some trouble with a paragraph in my... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.