Taylor: When long-vanished memories come flying back

How does a chemical reaction produce conscious thought? How can stored memories metamorphose themselves into an entirely new thought?

The human mind is an amazing thing. I read articles in popular scientific journals about how the mind works. Aside from learning the names of different parts of the brain—about as useful as studying ancient alchemy—I’m no wiser.

I know that memory is stored chemically in the interactions between neurons. But how is it stored? How does a chemical reaction produce conscious thought? How can stored memories, which are, after all, simply observed data, somehow metamorphose themselves into an entirely new thought?

Beats me.

But sometimes I can almost feel those neurons and synapses working inside my skull.

Joan and I took a trip down memory lane last month. We went back to Ainsworth Hot Springs, on the western shore of Kootenay Lake. For 10 years, Joan’s parents owned a motel there. We visited whenever we could, and got to know some local people.

But we haven’t been back to Ainsworth in 20 years.

As we drove along the lake, we passed a small white house nestled against the shore.

“What was her name?” Joan asked, searching her memory.

A name popped into my mind. I have no idea where it came from. “Chris,” I said.

A bit further down the road, Joan added, “Yes. Lind. Her husband?”

I could sense millions of neurons flailing around for connections they hadn’t made in decades. A couple of them touched.

“Charlie,” I said.

It kept happening for three days. A word from our waitress, a view from the window, a roof among the trees. Suddenly, tiny billiard balls began ricocheting around inside my head.

Some of them stuck together and a memory came back. Of someone’s name. Of something someone did. Or of what we ourselves had done, once upon a time.

The process gives Random Access Memory a whole new meaning.

My friend and mentor Eric McLuhan once defined memory as an act of creative imagination. Rather than exhuming whole memories, his aphorism suggests, we re-invent them.

Any courtroom cross-examination will reveal that we don’t really remember much of what we call memory. We recall some basic facts. We embroider those recollections with details. Some details turn out to be real; others have the sheen of fantasy.

Certainly, we revise and edit our memories. A longitudinal study of the same group of men, over a 40-year period, documented the ways they amended their memories to match their evolving perceptions of themselves. Some edited their stories to make themselves look better; others recast their narratives to put themselves less at fault.

It even happened in the Bible. If Mark’s gospel derives mainly from Peter, as scholars claim, then Peter clearly remembered mostly what a klutz he had been. Paul, on the other hand, made sure we knew that he had been right, all along, even when he wasn’t.

But you can’t invent a name. It’s either right or it’s wrong. Where does it come from? Where does it go when it disappears forever?

Which leads, of course, to the fear of all aging persons—if my memories go, do I go with them?