What is a memory?

Existence is to be perceived or to perceive.
— George Berekely
Through our brain’s experimentally combining memories and ideas in novel ways, we get new associations. It is this that forms the foundation for our ability to be creative and artistic, to birth new ideas and solve complex problems.
— Julia Shaw
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I remember

When I was five years old I was at my dad’s softball game at the community ballpark. I was running around with two friends, sisters named Tina and Andrea, who I was always sure would get me into trouble. My dad’s uniforms were yellow and black. There were sunflower seeds on the bleacher benches and the dry dirt ground beneath. At the top of the bleachers sat my grandpa. I can see his face with his gray hair and black glasses as he clutches his chest, slumps to the left, and falls to the ground. I saw him die. My grandpa had a heart attack. I saw him, second row from the top bleachers clutch at his chest. He had a heart attack and it killed him. 

I would call this one of my core memories. An event that shaped me as a person. However, my mom tells me I couldn’t have seen it. She says we were in the bathroom the whole time. I had to go, and was too young to go alone. 

So what is a memory?

Memories are records of relationships among symbols. In her book, The Memory Illusion, Why you may not be who you think you are, Dr. Julia Shaw explains that neurons form memories by reconnecting patterns among them. Patterns of thought. 

“Association is everything, it is the association between the individual memory fragments in different parts of the brain that makes what we think of as a whole memory.” 
— Julie Shaw
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Memories are not actual second to second recordings our brain just fills in the bits we actually forgot to make it a better story. Each time we recall the symbols in relation to each other we retell the story of the original memory to ourselves. The original relationship among the neurons is broken and a new one is created to form a new version of that story.

So, the blue of the Pacific, the way the sun catches your lovers hair, or the inexplicably sweet smell of your otherwise filthy dog's head can trigger this recall and when you store the memory again - when you re-store it - the circumstances of your recall will get stored along with it, including the emotions you bring to the memory. 

Memories Change 

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Shaw eventually goes on to discuss how this might lead to false memories and the practical drawbacks of that. But more interesting to me is that these associations and the stories we tell about them create our memories, and our memories define our identities. If we are not mindful of how we view the past we will inadvertently change our experience of it along with our understandings of ourselves. From yearbooks to facebook, as Shaw says, “Any source of information has the potential to change our memories post hoc.” Our perceptions of ourselves changes us. 

Memory Clusters

Shaw says memories cluster, meaning we create and store more memories at certain times in our lives. People across all cultures create more memories in their teens and twenties which is why this time of life is often associated with the feeling of nostalgia. All cultures do this however the types of memories recalled for these critical times of growth tend to center around themes that represent the values of the culture. In Eastern cultures, for instance, memories formed at this time focus more on group and community achievements and events, whereas in the US these memories tend to center on personal experiences and achievements. 

My Yearbook Portraits are an examination of this feeling of nostalgia from the strong clusters of memories formed at this time. I research each subject to learn about their life. When combined with the things they wrote and the info about them in the books, a bit of a story begins to emerge, and it’s that golden thread that I try to follow when selecting composition and colors for each portrait. 

As I complete multiple portraits from the yearbooks my grandfather left me, I’ve found that the collection as a group begins to tell a story about him as well. It is a familiar story for me, so rather easy to see. I have recently acquired my first ‘found’ yearbook and I am curious if the collection I find in that book tells a clear story about the previous owner in that same way. 

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*Fun fact, the knowledge that this memory is false is called metamemory.