Forgetting and Failing to
July 25, 2010 6:09 AM   Subscribe

Please help with my writing project on the kinds of memories that visit you over and over again and annoy, non-plus or disturb you. I’ve got my own examples and some of the most common (e.g., irritating songs). What involuntary memories do you have—that you wish you didn’t?

For years I was plagued by the memory every single cockroach I’d ever seen or squashed—where, when. Yes, I was afraid of them, but not that afraid. The argument could hardly be made that my involuntary memories of ugly bugs served any adaptive purpose. Psychologists and neuroscientists often make the argument that this is the reason why these memories show up over and over again—to protect us against future threats of harm. The argument works for unwanted memories of traumatic events, but not for others. I may be unusual. Help me get a broader sampling of experience beyond my own. Thanks!
posted by brynnwood to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I was twice attacked by a wasp's nest. When I was 9 years old, then eight months later when I was 10 years old. On both occasions, I was not messing with the bees or anything, I just stumbled innocently into the wrong place in two locations.

Hospital visit both times. Stayed over-night in the hospital the second time.

Now, if a fly buzzes past my ear, or any flying insect buzz - I am back in vietnam, having flash backs, and trying to stave off a panic attack.
posted by Flood at 6:14 AM on July 25, 2010

Location based memories would be one that I suspect a lot of people experience. My sister broke down in tears for years after her car accident when someone absentmindedly took a route that took her through the same intersection where it happened.

I have a lot of musical associations, and for that reason certain music is so heavily weighted with memory that I cannot listen to it without recalling those memories. Some are very positive and these days I have even started harnessing this phenomenon as a positive mnemonic device - listening to music on repeat in certain situations so that subsequent listenings will be tied to that experience. That said, they aren't all positive.
posted by greekphilosophy at 6:31 AM on July 25, 2010

It seems to take effort to recall positive or comforting memories. The ones that revisit you whether you want them to or not are often ones of pain, fear, or trauma. I suspect that most people if asked would mostly mention traumatic memories. I was severely bitten by a dog three years ago and had flashbacks and nightmares about it for at least a year after it happened.
posted by blucevalo at 6:37 AM on July 25, 2010

Best answer: I have a number of unwanted memories that are tied to embarrassment-- something that I did involuntarily that led to a moment of mortification. Prime example: I was walking with my boyfriend down the street, tripped on a piece of uneven pavement, and my strapless dress got yanked down to completely expose my breasts. Any time something comes up that makes my cheeks burn red-- that is sure to be an event that plays incessantly on an endless tape in my brain.

The other type is memories of being physically punished for things as a child that I thought were unfair or unwarranted-- not usually the spanking itself but the announcement of impending doom. Prime example: At back to school night in 4th or 5th grade I was acting a bit sullen-- not the cheerful, smiling little girl that my mother required. Out of nowhere she announces to my baby brother "Don't worry, she is going to get a spanking when we get home." Boy that cheered me up to no end! Also it really changed me from a quiet, rather morose young girl into a happy-go-lucky child. (Not really.) Why I keep dwelling on this shit, I don't know. I wish I could forget it and remember other, happier times, but instead even 40 years later that is the stuff that pops into my head when I think about my childhood.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:44 AM on July 25, 2010

Best answer: A gross one:

I was once doing my laundry at a small local laundromat. Two young moms had completely taken over the entire wall of washers. They saw that I needed a single washing machine and told me an old man had put a rug in the machine at the end, and that it had been done for ages. They suggested I take the rug out and put it on clean clothes table, and wash my stuff in there.

I went over to the machine and opened it. The most foul smell greeted me: cat pee mixed with stale cigarette smoke, dog-funk, and who-knows-what-else. When I gritted my teeth and picked up the rug, wet balled-up dog poop fell on the floor. For some reason, the dog poop coming out of that washing machine really viscerally squicked me out, and I still get random, nasty flashbacks to it a couple of years later. I have no idea why. Every time I get a flashback to it, in order to get rid of the memory I have to think very firmly about David Tennant for 15 minutes before I can clear my brain of it.
posted by colfax at 6:50 AM on July 25, 2010

Best answer: embarrassing story time!

Freshmen year of college, I liked a girl who lived down the hall from me. She was the girl everyone fell in love with in a second, sweet and super-Midwestern (the college town was her hometown). She had just broken up with her boyfriend, who also lived on our hall. I hadn't made a move.

It was the school's big yearly formal dance, and my friends and I were taking the let's-be-sillycrazydrunk approach to the night. I decided to go out and buy a dress. I had cowboy boots to wear it with, and didn't mind a little crossdressy flamboyance. Or rather, I was secretly terrified, but thought it would be a brave and confident gesture and that, somehow, my dudeliness could make it out unscathed. But I was nervous about whether I should actually go out looking like that or not, and was pacing around my friend's dorm (not dreamymidwestern girl). She gave me a shot of whiskey, which gave me the idea of running over to dreamymidwestern girl's room and saying hello, getting a pleased surprised laugh, and starting the evening on a good note.

I knocked on the door and a man opened it up. It was her father. He worked on campus and was going to the event himself, and had stopped in to say hello to his daughter in her dress. And now he was saying hello to me, boy in dress, standing awkwardly outside his daughter's room. I said hi and my name and, without really knowing why, 'i'm sorry about this.' He replied with, "Oh, oh no. Oh that's okay. I think that's swell." dreamymidwestern girl watched her dad - a quiet, kindly, bearded man - consoling a terrified and somewhat tipsy me in purple and then, in a rush, decided it was time for us all to go to the formal. The peak cringiness of the memory is the walk the three of us made down the hall before meeting up with the rest of our friends. Ten seconds shuffling clumsily down a hall in florescent light and running on whiskey and shame - that's the part I remember best. I mean, most endlessly and annoyingly.

so that's embarrassing. never ended up dating dreamymidwesterngirl, but I did make out with a few girls at the dance (?) who did in fact find it to be a sexybravewhatever thing to do. that's the part of the memory I get to later, if someone else wants to laugh about the epicness of it. but whenever I see a purple dress...
posted by elephantsvanish at 6:57 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a handful of memories that come up for me, centralized around the theme of me being really rude, impatient, or mean to someone else (and remembering them makes me really upset with myself and my behavior, allowing me to think some really horrible things about myself for a while). I think it's part of my intensely perfectionistic and ruminative character, and while it *could* serve some evolutionary purpose of helping me be nicer or more patient, in reality it just reinforces my negative self-talk about being a bad/mean/rotten-to-the-core sort of person (while I know that I'm actually very conscientious and compassionate, and these things were isolated incidents). If I'm already feeling crappy about myself or something that happened during my day, there's almost a weird sort of comfort/relief in compulsively indulging the worst extreme of the feelings, so it's not unusual that I involuntarily start thinking about something like the time I was in 6th grade and a boy in my class missed the basketball hoop and accidentally hit me in the back with his ball, and I freaked out and whacked him in his back with my fist.

Incidentally, this kind of thinking I'm describing is a common indicator of someone who might be more prone to depression!
posted by so_gracefully at 7:01 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I was five or six years old, the Vietnam War had recently ended and there was huge influx of refugees in my city. I was at a local playground/park swinging on one of the old-fashioned heavy steel swingsets. A little vietnamese walked right in front of me as I was coming down from my high backswing. I yelled a warning but she didn't understand and didn't get out of the way. I knocked her out cold, she was bleeding.

Her family rushed around her, speaking a language I didn't understand, all I could say was, "I couldn't stop, I'm sorry!" My mom gathered me up and got me out of there. I know that chances are she opened her eyes two seconds after we left, but to this day, I wonder if I killed her. I wish my mom had let me stay to know for sure. Nearly 40 years later, I deliberately avoid what is a fairly major road in my hometown because I pass by that "place I killed that girl".
posted by Jazz Hands at 7:07 AM on July 25, 2010

Okay, didn't preview carefully enough: "a little vietnamese"? Good lord, I meant "a little vietnamese girl" See? My traumatic memory made me racist!
posted by Jazz Hands at 7:10 AM on July 25, 2010

Best answer: I have at times had a couple of recurring trauma-type memories -- thunderstorms bothered me for a few years after my street and house were flooded, and ambulance sirens made triggered a bit of nausea for several years after a nasty medical issue with a loved one. But those recurring memories have faded. Childhood embarrassment has had much more staying power.

Somewhere around 2nd grade, I (class nerd) was fascinated with wolly bear caterpillars, not in an entomological sense but because they were occasionally found on the playground and treated as fetish properties by other kids. One day the prettiest girl in class, who'd never before so much as spoken to me, told me she had a woolly bear at home, and that I could have it if I came to her house (!). My mother had no interest in driving me the 3/4 of a mile to the cute girl's house to retrieve a caterpillar, but I refused to drop the issue. I badgered and whined until she relented around 10pm. As I climbed the steps to the pretty girl's porch, her whole family swung into view through the screen door, uniformly clad in flannel pajamas and playing a board game on the living room carpet. I was embarrassed at having intruded on private family time, but stammered out the explanation for why I was there. Pretty girl just stared at me with huge, denying eyes and shook her head slowly back and forth. I apologized and walked away emptyhanded.

Nothing gets the taste of shame and humiliation out of your mouth like Beebob-a-Reebop rhubarb pie...
posted by jon1270 at 7:30 AM on July 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

I went up to the cattle yards on our farm when I was a small kid. I climbed the fence just in time to see my uncle slit the throat of a lamb. The blood gushed out and ran down the ground. I ran home in a terrified panic and told my parents who had to explain where meat came from. It is a vision I cannot erase.
posted by honey-barbara at 7:48 AM on July 25, 2010

If you haven't already, I imagine that you'll find some good food for thought in the 130 comments of the Compelled to Blurt thread from a couple years ago. It's less about the memories themselves than the inadvertent reactions they produce, but definitely in your line.
posted by mumkin at 8:55 AM on July 25, 2010

I don't know if this is what you're after, but I'll replay snippets of conversation that I wish I could have done differently, even years later. These memories will be triggered by being in a similar place as where the conversation took place or by having a conversation about a similar topic. One that comes to mind is a situation where I was riding in the back of a friend's parent's car with a bunch of friends. We would call each others' parents mom and dad. So we're riding in the car and everyone's talking and I call up to the front "Dad! Blah blah blah!" (I don't have a clue what I had wanted to tell him.) He didn't hear me, so I said it a little bit louder. I didn't think I was being so loud, but he looked back and reprimanded his *actual* daughter for yelling. I don't remember what happened after that, if I apologized or what, but it's that little interaction of me saying something and him getting upset that replays in my mind. It's these little instances where I wish I could've said something differently or somehow the circumstances could have been different.

Looking back through the thread, I guess I'm talking about something similar to what so_gracefully already mentioned. These little scenes will replay in my mind and reinforce whatever negative thoughts I'm dwelling on (how much I suck at remembering names or social interactions or dealing with the unexpected or whatever stupid thing I'm down on myself for).
posted by zorrine at 9:49 AM on July 25, 2010

These sort of recurrent, unavoidable, emotional memories are quite similar to the vast array of experiences we collectively label "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder." Because they don't tend to cause serious maladaptive behavior, relatively minor incidents like the ones listed in this thread don't tend to be diagnosed as such, but we should think carefully about whether there's really all that much difference between this sort of memory and one that someone truly cannot shake to the point of poor mental health.

At a mechanistic level, I'd be willing to bet that they're quite similar, involving a certain amount of amygdalar potentiation that is reinforced and reconsolidated each time the memory is recalled. Good ole emotion...
posted by solipsophistocracy at 2:04 PM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a lifelong fear of swimming pools. I don't know why, but I think they're enormously creepy. Especially the deep end. And the drain. And the skimmers that suck the water through the filters. And the chipped paint and rough surfaces you often find on outdoor pools.

Funny thing is that I have no fear of natural waterways. Rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, oceans, they're all my friends, even though they're technically far more dangerous than swimming pools.

I remember when I was a kid, the first time I was in a real (non-kiddy) pool. I was walking from the shallow end to the deep end, down that slope that exists in all such pools. And I remember that feeling of the ground giving way beneath me, this insecure feeling that I could no longer touch bottom. I didn't understand the slope, I just knew that the bottom wasn't there anymore. It freaked me out.

I don't know if that's the source of it or not. But I always avoid swimming pools. Yuck.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:16 PM on July 25, 2010

Response by poster: I'm just reading Daniel Schacter's Seven Sins of Memory and he confirms your theory solipsophistocracy!
posted by brynnwood at 5:34 PM on July 26, 2010

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