I was recently talking with an old friend about feelings of nostalgia for the way of life and the people of the place where we grew up. I asserted that I never felt nostalgic about anything, even though I have moved to new places numerous times and I have had good times and bad times and met interesting people at the places I have lived. Then, I was quick to explain that this is not because I am heartless, but mostly because of bad memory: My memories of past events become faint (both good and traumatic experiences) fairly fast.
Ordinary human memory is a mess. Most of us can recall the major events in our lives, but the memory of Homo sapiens pales when compared with your average laptop. It takes us far longer to store data (you might have to hear a phone number five to 10 times before you can repeat it); it’s easy for us to forget things we’ve learned (try reciting anything from your sophomore history class); and it’s sometimes hard to dislodge outdated information (St. Petersburg will always remain Leningrad to me). Worse, our memories are vulnerable to contamination and distortion. Lawyers can readily fool us with suggestive questions; false memories can easily be implanted.
The article goes on to describe the curious case of Jill Price who can remember everything she has ever seen or heard in her life: Total Recall. The article concludes that Jill Price has OCD on her memories. She involuntarily ruminates over and over about everything that has happened to her during a day, and goes back to her memories constantly, in a self-reinforcement loop that improves memory recall.
There was also a related, very interesting special report in 60 Minutes, about the reliability of the visual memory of eyewitnesses in court trials (Part I and Part II of the special report). According to this report more than 75% of innocent people were convicted in part because of eyewitnesses pointing the finger to the wrong person. Our memory is not like a tape recorder. Our biases and preconceptions affect the way we remember things. There is evidence that even when our recollection of events is false, it still feels true to us (more on this subject is discussed in Jonah Lehrer’s book “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” that I have talked about before).
The moral of the story here is that even when you are absolutely positive about exactly what you said to your spouse in last night’s argument, that she totally misconstrued, … well you shouldn’t be :) But we should also not make assumptions about how well or in what way other people remember shared experiences and events, based only on how we remember them ourselves. Every person’s capacity to remember is different, hence we cannot expect them to react to their memories the same as we do. For example, not feeling nostalgic or melancholy, doesn’t necessarily mean that one doesn’t care.