The following are my personal thoughts on this subject. Do not take any part, in any sense of the word, as scientific fact or truth. It is purely what I have observed and read.
At what point does conscious thought begin? No, let me rephrase that. At what point does conscious memory begin?
A child who is 2 years old certainly remembers its likes and dislikes. I like ice cream, but I don’t like beets. Maybe a child can remember something that happened yesterday, but definitely not what happened a year ago. That is memory, but it’s only relative to the child’s lifespan and experiences. Now take an adult and go back to the first moment in time that the person remembers. This is what I’m calling the beginning of conscious memory. Maybe there’s a real medical or scientific term for this, but I’m going to call it what I want to. I like to keep things simple and those scientific terms are usually just too long and are truly meaningless to any normal person on the planet. One for example is the hippocampus. Now say that 10 times fast! FYI, below is a quote which will help you understand this important portion of our brain. Actually there is a term that is used to define the time from birth to the first memory (my Conscious Memory). It’s called Childhood Amnesia. I won’t be discussing that here, but it is a studied and documented phenomena.
The following quote is by Ellen Kuwana, a Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer February 4, 2000
“One brain structure known to be involved in the complex processes of forming, sorting, and storing memories is the hippocampus. Several studies have shed new light on the contribution of the hippocampus to memory.
Not only is the hippocampus filing away memories, it is connecting them with other related memories and giving the memories meaning. In other words, the hippocampus might be connecting the memory of your first day at school with information about the physical surroundings, the smells, and the sounds of that event.”
I have gone through this thought process and my earliest memory is when I was 3 years old. I can sort of remember the place, but I can’t remember being there. Using my memory, I’ll try to describe this “place”; it’s a second floor apartment with entry through a stairwell leading from the back of the building. There are railroad tracks just outside the entryway. As you go up the stairs the living room, the only room that I remember, opens to the left. A stub wall overlooks the stairs so that you can’t fall down the steps from the room. Dark wood paneling is covering all the walls as well as the stairwell itself. It must be around Christmas because I think that there is a tree setup and decorated. There’s a rug on the wood floor, braided I think and there’s a Lionel train set that had been given to me. My description of this feels like I’m floating around the room looking at it, but not really being there. One exception to my not remembering being there, is that I remember being carried down the stairs and outside wrapped in a blanket, most likely to a car. It must have been my mother carrying me, but I don’t know that for sure. By the way, I have confirmed this memory with my mother and therefore know that I was in fact 3 years old.
Now, when does conscious memory begin? For me, I guess the answer would be when I was 3 years old. I would have expected that it would be by the occurrence of some significant event, like great pain, great loss (which is a pain of sorts), or some other great emotional situation. However, this doesn’t seem to apply to my first memory. So what was it about that moment in time that my brain chose to remember? I’m sorry for asking a question that I don’t know the answer to, but again I’m writing this so I’m allowed to do these things.
What determines what is remembered and what is not and what is real and what is not? When I was in the Navy I was told that when I get out, I’d most likely remember the good times but not the bad. Well, so much for that theory. I remember some good as well as some bad times, likes and dislikes. For example, one of those disliked times was when I was in the Navy. We were at sea and our ship was taking on stores at sea from a tender. The ships were tethered together with slack in the lines to allow them to move about as the seas rolled. As you might imagine, these tethering lines at times would become very taught being pulled rapidly across the deck. If you happened to get caught in them you’d be in serious trouble. I was actively involved the handling of these lines and this was a time that I very much disliked. I was very upset at this time.
So the memory is a very interesting thing as it appears to be made up of, not only what actually happened, but also of what our hippocampus has combined or associated with what happened. I have had a chance to speak with a childhood friend, Maidie, about a time that we had as teenagers. At the time I had been dating Ingrid, who I would ultimately marry. As with any relationships there are up times and down times and during one of the down times we had decided to not see each other for a while. During this down time, I went out on a few dates with Maidie and once we were lying in the field on the hill between the farm and the Hooper’s house making out. As things were heating up, I mistakenly said; “Oh Ingrid”. You might correctly imagine that Maidie got a little upset over this. Now, jump forward 30 or 40 years and here is her description of that time. We were sitting in the back seat of her mother’s Mustang making out when I said those, now, infamous words. We were both there at the same time and absorbed the same information, yet as time has gone by our memories (the hippocampus) have altered the experience for us. Who is right? We’ll probably never know, because for each of us we know the truth.
I’d like to interject a quote from a book that I have read, which is very relevant here. Its title is “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog” and was written by Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. and Maia Szalavitz, Copyright 2006.
“We know today that, just like when you open a Microsoft Word file on your computer, when you retrieve a memory from where it is stored in the brain, you automatically open it to “edit.” You may not be aware that your current mood and environment can influence the emotional tone of your recall, your interpretation of events and even your beliefs about which events actually took place. But when you “save” the memory again and place it back into storage, you can inadvertently modify it. When you discuss your memory of an experience, the interpretation you hear from a friend, family member, or a therapist can bias how and what you recall the next time you pull up that “file.” Over time, incremental changes can even lead to the creation of memories that did not take place. In the lab, researchers have been able to encourage test subjects to create memories of childhood events that didn’t happen: some as common as being lost in a mall, others as extreme as seeing someone possessed by a demon.”
When you’re young you can remember most everything as clear as a bell. Then we start to age and something strange begins to happen. Of course, we all know that there are serious memory conditions, but for now let’s leave that discussion for another chapter. I’m referring more to simple confusion or something like that, as our minds fill up with stuff. As an example, have you ever wanted to tell someone something important but that person is not physically with you at the moment? If it’s important enough, you start going through this process of repeating to yourself that I need to tell them this or that. You repeat it over and over, so that the subject becomes sort of prevalent in your mind. When you finally see the person, guess what happens? It’s become so prevalent that you question yourself; have I already told them? Back and forth you go, trying to answer that one. There is probably a technical term for this situation, but I sort of think that it goes something like this. When you’re young, your brain (memory) doesn’t have much in there. But, as you get older and events, thoughts, actions, emotions, questions, answers, etc. get stuffed into that memory package. Now when you ask yourself that simple question, did I already tell this to the person, you need to process so much more trying to figure it out. It’s just overwhelming and becomes unanswerable. You must understand of course, that I’m referring to you, the reader and certainly not myself!
As we move through life we store many memories and I wonder, how do we hold onto them? There seem to be so many obstacles in the way. I know that science is making strides and there are all sorts of theories on the subject. But, as a lay person, how do you know what is the right thing to do in order to improve your chances of having a, long term, good memory. Do you read a lot? Do you take medications? Do you take any of the various Herbal remedies? Do you exercise? Do you do cross word puzzles? There just doesn’t seem to be a simple answer to this extremely complex question. By the time that I finish writing this, will I remember doing any of it? I just don’t know and it scares me. I know of people that have simply forgotten it all and go through life not knowing what might have happened yesterday, or in the past 5 years for that matter. Then there are the people that have brain tumors and end up in death. Having recently lost a very dear friend to this, I know the frustration of trying to hold onto some memories for a little while and then seeing them simply fade away as if they had never been there. I’m thinking that maybe the people that say live day by day are right. Maybe we should live as if there is going to be no tomorrow. On the other hand, maybe we just need to live knowing that this physical life is simply one-step on our journey home.
The term, our journey home, refers in the biblical sense to dying and having your soul go to heaven and re-join God. I will not be getting into the question of; is there a God and if there is, a heaven then there must be a Hell. That we will leave to the theologians of the world. In discussing memory and death, I want to expand the notion of memory at this point to include the notion of feelings, desires, plans, experiences, etc. Is this the soul? In other words, all of those things that get stored in your memory over your life span. When a person dies, it would be nice to believe that all memories are stored somewhere. Again, what the soul is made up we’ll leave to the theologians. However, for those of us left on earth, the person simply ceases to exist. All of those things stored in the memory are just gone. I find this very sad. When I die, it will be as if I had never existed.
My first wife, Ingrid and I had been married for a little more than 20 years. However, our relationship certainly lasted more than those 20 years. I met her when I was 17 years old in 1963 and was there when she passed away on September 29, 2016 in South Carolina. Over those 53 some odd years, we built many memories together, for her almost a lifetime full. Where are her memories now? Are they gone forever along with her physical body? Do we now wonder if she ever existed? I think that her memories only exist within our son and myself. He would contain less than I would, being limited to his current lifespan.
Prior to her death, both of her parents had died as well as her sister. There is no one else in her family that would be saving her memories. There is a niece, but they had not spent that much time together to amass memories together. It truly saddens me to come to the realization that when you die, you just cease to exist. You leave nothing behind. At this stage in my life, I am beginning to realize my mortality, and at some point, I will die as well.
With my mortality in mind, I have begun the discussion with my son, Will, about what material things that he wants. Over the years, I have collected all sorts of things from various family members who have since passed away. It includes pictures, furniture, and school information. Just all sort of things. Of this, he indicated that he only wants a few things from the family to remember and to keep the family alive. However, he threw me a curve ball by stating that he is to become the last heir. This is actually true and again saddens me a lot. As I have and will be writing, there has been a long line of ancestors that have come before me to make me who I am today. Ingrid and I only had one son, Will. In addition, he married a woman that for medical reasons cannot have children. When I pass the family heirlooms onto him, there will be no one after him. This branch of the family and all that they have accomplished will die with him.
It truly makes me wonder, what is really worth doing or creating in life? I’ve done a considerable amount of genealogy work tracing the family lines back in history. Now I wonder, knowing what I stated in the prior paragraph, is it really worth it? For what reason would I do it, to pass it along? There’s not going to be anyone there to catch it and continue. Why do we amass material things? Why do we save money for the future? There are way more questions here, than anyone can answer, I believe.
In my writings, I am going to attempt to relive some of my memories and life experiences. There will probably be some sad and some happy moments. Maybe there’ll even be some controversial ones. I don‘t know how you’d write about real people and events without someone possibly taking offence in some way. This is how memory works. It is not perfect.