We store memories using a variety of contexts — sights, sounds, smells, who was there, the weather, etc. Context helps us retrieve these memories later. For instance, my husband recently made roast chicken and collard greens. It was a normal Sunday night, then the collards hit the iron skillet and I was transported back to 1994. It smelled just like Tuesday night dinner at my Maw-Maw’s house. Walking into the kitchen, I fully expected her to be there at the stove stirring a pot of red beans with ham hocks.
The next morning my home still smelled like it, and it was like she was with me while I showered and got dressed. It was comforting. Of course it was, I love my grandmother very much. But what about the memories you don’t love? What about the times you’ve stuck your foot in your mouth? What about the time you were tyrannically insistent about something and turned out to be wrong? What about the time you cheated on your significant other? What about the time you were dumped?
If you really want to remember something — especially memorization — context is highly valuable. In graduate school, I always tried to study for midterms and finals in the classrooms in which the exam would later be given because cognitive research shows we’re more likely to recall the information we studied in that same space.
By that same token, a recent fMRI study found that we are able to push memories out of our minds by changing the mental representations of contextual information associated with the event. It’s not that we forgot all memories that are filled with shame, regret, and embarrassment. It’s that we’re not encoding it like more favorable memories. We’re not fully soaking in the context — the environment — of the event because we’re not interested in recalling it. For instance, every time you wear your favorite socks with the ladybugs on them, you don’t want it to remind you of your very messy breakup in 2008.
Several months ago, I passed a woman walking a dog, talking on the phone, and carrying an enormous smoothie. The dog got spooked about something and took off, dragging the girl towards the street. She tripped and slammed shoulder-first into a parked car. The smoothie exploded everywhere. She screamed the dog’s name as he took off across the street. She stuffed her phone into her bra and hobbled after him with a now-broken flip flop falling off her left foot. The dog slowed down and she managed to grab his leash.
I looked down at the smoothie all over the car, all over the grass, and my mouth was still hanging open in shock. I imagine this is something she’s already filed away in the “Forget Immediately” folder.
Whenever she has another PB&J smoothie or buys a pair of flip-flops, she doesn’t think about the time her dog almost drug her into traffic. She may not recall whether anyone else was around to see the incident. She’s not nailing the memory down with context. When she walks on that particular block, she might remember what happened. But as the years go by it will be foggier and foggier.
The Dartmouth study explains a lot about our personal histories. Often something takes a turn “for the worse” but we adapt and persevere. Over time that incident doesn’t even feel like a bad thing. It might be an event that changed the course of your life, but you always make the best of it. Breakups, layoffs, accidents, failures, illnesses, injuries, even the most traumatic life events can be overcome and even embraced.
“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.” — Gilda Radner