Memory lockdown: nothing’s going in and nothing’s coming out
Lockdown finally gave me the time to “just read a book”, something I’d been going on about for years. Although I do like reading, I think this idea also has an aesthetic to it that seemed comforting and involved many cups of (artisan) coffee, the smell of new books and the solidification of the type of woman I wanted to be; cultured, literary, articulate, educated.
The dream is well and truly within my reach now. I wear a linen dressing gown. I drink coffee from an arty, mustard-coloured mug. I have a rubber plant. I have several books piled up by my bed, a Moleskine notebook and even, yes really, copies of The New Yorker sprawled around, because I just left them there, half-open on that article about Syria. It’s really a shame no one is around to witness all of this.
The problem is that, whilst I have all the dressings of the cultured, literary, articulate, educated woman I would like to be, I’m realising I can’t remember anything. I read books and, even when deeply moved by them (a valuable experience in itself) ask me what exactly happened or what it was about a week later and you’ll receive a vague, confused summary of some basic facts which, if questioned, I will not be able to explain.
I’ll begin, enthusiastically, then backtrack as I remember something I should have brought up earlier, which only further confuses my listener. I feel Virginia Woolf turning in her grave as I describe A Room of One’s Own as “she’s basically saying women have to be really rich to write and even then, it’s hard cos of… the patriarchy…” I’ve started to wonder what the point of all this reading is if I’m unable to remember any of it.
I thought I would have more brain space to actually comprehend and recall information throughout this time, but this inability to remember anything seems to have gotten much, much worse, spreading into my everyday life like a certain pandemic.
Because I am a millennial I googled it, which is probably the real cause of why I am unable to remember anything, because I literally don’t need to anymore.
Of course, I find an article about this, of which I will no doubt offer a long-winded, distorted explanation of to my partner tonight. Lucky boy. In The Guardian Julia Shaw, a psychological scientist at University College London, says of lockdown memory loss and confusion, “Our internal timelines, our autobiographical memories, need a “before” and “after”, or what memory researchers call “temporal landmarks”. These landmarks allow us to organise our lives into a story. Any good story relies on a narrative arc of emotional highs and lows, rather than a flat line of emotions and events.”
So the mundanity of our current existence is blurring our memories, leading us to lose track of what happened yesterday and what happened last week.
She continues: “If we don’t have suitable landmark memories, we are more likely to mistake what we did in the past. As time passes, this may even allow more room for memories of events that we never experienced at all. As a false memory researcher, this worries me.”
It worries me too, Julia. It worries me because you’re suggesting that not only am I going to confuse what’s actually happening, I’m going to start making it up, presenting dire consequences for the legacy of Virginia Woolf.
As much as the temporal sameness of lockdown is making the act of remembering more complicated, it also seems to me that as adults, we are expected to read the latest non-fiction book or article and recall its main points word for word. At school, the recalling of what we’d read was something to be practiced daily and tested annually (now more like biannually, or monthly) in exams. It’s not as if I graduated and the reward was that my memory unlocked a new mode, sponge mode, in which every fact I read was imprinted on my mind forever. This, unquestionably, would have been much more useful than my Creative Writing degree.
Today we are the recipients of an unrelenting bombardment of information. Alongside the latest bestselling polemics there’s 24 hour news, podcasts, documentaries, TV shows, stand-up, the list goes on. Whilst this is brilliant and undoubtedly more interesting than my Year 9 Maths classes, it’s also undoubtedly more information than my Year 9 Maths classes, and I wasn’t very good at remembering these.
Before we start considering if I have a medical problem, I should state that I do have an almost photographic memory of essentially non-intellectual things. I remember people, their faces, mannerisms, the way they speak, but not their names. I remember places, their point of entry, how they looked, felt, smelt, the noises they made, but not their exact location or how to get there.
Often in my mind I see a place, an image of it, usually from the same angle, always with the same weather or in the same light. Memories are attached to these images. I think of conversations I’ve had with my best friend and see her block of flats in my mind, the road outside of it, the rainy weather from my first trip to visit her there. When I think of my parents I see the entrance to their living room, it is morning, someone can be overheard in the kitchen. Work is the view from my desk. It is hot, as it was when I started the job last June; the broken fan jutters in the corner. This extends, sometimes, to intellectual things. When I think of a book, I can often visualise the place in which I read it the most. This place comes to mind when I think of it, even if the details of the book itself are fuzzy.
This type of memory, my next Google search led me to find out, is called ‘iconic memory’, i.e. the memory of visual stimuli, the image you “see” in your mind’s eye being the iconic memory of that visual stimuli. Despite being described as fleeting or momentary, to me these memories are the most concrete. These images allow me to anchor my understanding of the world to things, spaces, people. Facts, solutions and analysis elude my mind, whilst the sensory impression beds in, waving them off.
This memory of place is also referred to as ‘place attachment’, where an emotional bond is created between a place and a person (although there is little information available on what qualifies a place to be worthy of place attachment, this value judgement being subjective).
There are of course, simple explanations of left and right brains and logical and creative types to underline why I am not able to remember facts in the way I can remember sensory information or emotional things. The problem, I find, with creativity, is its wishy-washy looseness. To be good at creativity is very different to being good at remembering facts and information.
One requires an interpretation of sensory information, relationships, societal pressures, tones, prejudices, to be processed sensorially and emotionally and put out into an artistic, sometimes entertaining (hopefully) form, that brings some insight emotionally or sensorially, through your unique perspective. In order to succeed at this, it should be original, it should be aware of and impacted by previous influences but not copy them; ideally it should move us.
The other requires you to hear information and for you to remember it and for you to recall it, perhaps also recalling some other facts to further back it up and strengthen your argument.
I’m not trying to demean or belittle that skill, of which I have very little and of which I am evidently jealous of, but the process is less complicated. Less, I think, is expected of it and yet, the outcome is still largely valued above and beyond any creative outcome, which is increasingly viewed by our government and education system as an optional addition to the curriculum, an “enrichment activity”.
For this reason, I greedily want both qualitative and quantitative. And I know, bitterly, that there are people who are effortlessly both. I had a friend at school who would slip us the answers to the weekly Science quiz, swanning off to paint her masterpiece in Art, ending the day by eloquently breaking down the emotional and historical significance of Wuthering Heights before picking up her A* maths results.
I want to be effortlessly both, but I will always be straining. She is six foot and I am five and we are both aiming for the same object on the same shelf. It will inevitably be harder for me to get there. Perhaps the fact I can come up with shelf metaphors for this struggle on the way is something to hold onto.
For my own predicament, I am approaching the recollection of facts as an enrichment activity. I say I have decided, but really I have no choice, my brain has resolutely decided to retain instead the image of the two competing off-licences down the road, the scrawled handwriting on the knock-off hand sanitisers and their vendors; one short, stocky, with a hearty laugh, the other slim, quiet, respectful, calm; over the various statistics in The New Yorker, the key dates and times of the Syrian crisis, the complexities of Brexit negotiations.
I have begun to write down the facts (in my Moleskin notebook), to at least try and recall them as I did in school; cover them with my hand and frown as I search for the percentage, the location, the name of the politician.
While I muse over what that couple were arguing about in the park, I hope to enrich my imaginings with some facts about gender politics and what role this might play in this couple’s lives.
If not, at least I can better fit my linen dressing gown, better explain my copies of The New Yorker, better preserve the works of Virginia Woolf. Or, worst case scenario, I can just Google it.