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The Wonder Report: September 17, 2021
The Dark Side of Memory
We’re digging in a little deeper on the topic of memory this week, including remembering’s darker side. I know they say “hindsight is 20/20,” but I’m not sure we always get it right in the way we remember the past. I’m looking forward to exploring this and more in this week’s Wonder Report. Thank you for being here with me.
Let’s get started.
1. The Pitfalls of Memory: Nostalgia, Regret, Misremembering
In my book The Art of the Essay: From Ordinary Life to Extraordinary Words, I tell the story of a conversation I had with Mom about a camping trip my husband and I were planning. Since I fancied myself a real nature lover, having always enjoyed camping and hiking and exploring in my youth, I greatly anticipated the adventure. Steve had done a little camping himself over the years. But since we’d never gone camping together as a couple, we decided to start small by buying just the basics.
“It’s a good idea,” Mom told me, “because you didn’t really like camping when you were little.”
I was shocked. That was not at all how I remembered my childhood. True, I liked to read and do art projects and play school in my room. When my family all bundled up to chop wood in the late fall, I begged to stay home … or at least in the warm truck while they trekked into the woods. And I certainly didn’t enjoy one minute of Girl Scout Camp—the one and only year I went.
But I liked to be outside as much as the next kid growing up in my rural community, right? Or did I? Had my more recent interest in hiking and exploring caused me to rewrite the memories of my childhood?Because no matter how much I protested, Mom never relented on her version of events. “You were more of an indoor kid,” she told me plainly.
Memory often feels fireproof, like we either recall something or we don’t. It’s the test-cramming version of memory where we input facts and hope we can spit them back out on the exam. But somewhere between remembering and forgetting is a murkiness that often renders our memories incomplete, incorrect, and even altered over time. When politicians or professors retell past events from a new angle or with a narrower lens, we call it revisionist history. When our brains do it, it’s still just memory.
The story of the Exodus contains at least one such slippage. When the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, life consisted of one hardship after another. Working conditions were brutal; the provisions meager. The growing numbers of Jews felt like an existential threat to the new Pharaoh, who instituted genocidal practices against God’s people. And they were crying out for help. In Exodus 2:24, Moses writes that “God heard their groaning; and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
Because God wasn’t the one with the memory problem. See, once He led Israel out of Egypt, and miraculously provided for them as they wandered in the wilderness (for their own good, by the way — see Exodus 13:17), the people started remembering their time in Egypt a little differently than they originally experienced it. Rather that recall the torture or the quotas or even the genocide, they remembered the fish, the cucumbers, the melons, and the leeks.
“Now the rabble who were among them had greedy cravings; and the sons of Israel also wept again and said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we used to eat for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna!’” (Numbers 11:4-6).
Like my own reimagining of myself as an outdoor kid based on my present circumstances, when faced with wandering in the desert, Israel remembered Egypt as a happy place. Generations later, some of the older Israelites had a similar problem when they looked at the foundation of the new temple that a remnant of exiled Jews was rebuilding.
“All the people shouted with a great shout of joy when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. Yet many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes” (Ezra 3:11-12).
When we look back on the past and see only what was good there, we risk the siren call of nostalgia that can shipwreck the present with its pretty lyrics about how wonderful things used to be. Of course nostalgia isn’t the only trapdoor of memory. When we fixate on negative memories of the past we can also sabotage the present and future with shame, regret, or anger.
And somewhere in the middle of all that remorse is the potential for great misunderstanding that misremembering can cause, even in the scope of very short-term memory. How many times in a week do I have to untangle misplaced expectations or miscommunication because I remembered something someone told me incorrectly or just a little differently than them?
“Hmmm, I didn’t remember it that way,” I say on repeat.
Then again, is getting it exactly right always the goal of remembering?
In the introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff, the author talks about the role of memory in his life, and particularly in the life of that memoir. “I remember the past in terms of stories. That’s how I think of it, how I talk about it, and how I’ve written it here,” Wolff says. “It’s true that life doesn’t happen to us in stories, that we make stories out of it, and that in making those stories we can’t help but put a personal stamp on them, for better or worse.”
But with eyes wide open to the potential downsides of putting our “personal stamp” on memories, how else could we possibly arrive at this point in our lives without filtering all we’ve experienced in life, all the tragedies and triumphs, all the simple moments we will ourselves to remember, except through the lens of our own experience? “Memory doesn’t work by committee,” Wolff writes. “Finally, it is my version of things, partial and subjective as that may be.”
That’s not to say we shouldn’t remain open to being corrected, or we shouldn’t do the work of carving out a better memory when presented with new information. And sometimes, like the Apostle Paul writes in Philippians 3, we have to “forget what lies behind in order to reach forward to what lies ahead.” But even then … even when our version seems a little too glossy or overly smudged, or doesn’t include Aunt Bertha, who was there all along, can we accept that this is our story, the story we’ve made out of the life we were given?
“Memory has its own story to tell,” Wolff writes. For better and for worse.
I wonder … how have you experienced the slippage of memory? Do you lean more toward nostalgia or regret? How have you come to terms with different versions of memory among yourself and other family members?
2. Developing a “Memory” of the Old Testament as a Context for the New
In a recent essay for The Redbud Post, Laura Cerbus writes about the advantage original readers of the New Testament enjoyed by having a shared memory of the history and teachings of the Old Testament.
“Unlike the people of Jesus’ day, or any modern-day religious Jew, most of us do not have the Old Testament as part of our collective memory,” Cerbus writes.
First century Jews would have had seared into their imaginations the signs, images, and longings that were passed down through the Law and Prophets and Psalms. So when Jesus showed up, he didn’t “arrive on an empty stage. He does not create his identity as Messiah from scratch, but works from a long history of events and prophecies that have shaped him and his audience,” Cerbus writes.
So how to we tap into that collective memory in order to be better readers of the New Testament?
Look for the threads. That’s Cerbus’ advice. When we read the Bible, look for “the connections, the themes, the images, the places, that recur in the Scriptures,” particularly between the Old and New Testaments. Cerbus offers a great example of this in her essay by tracing the significance of Jesus’ statement, “I am the light of the world,” through Old Testament tradition and imagery.
I would also recommend a Bible reading plan that provides readings from both the Old and New Testament side by side, which is one of many reasons why I love this one. As you read from each, the connections will often jump out at you simply because of proximity.
Finally, when you read something in the Bible that confuses you or raises more questions than answers, consider digging a little deeper. Search for key words in other passages of scripture. Read commentaries about the passage. Ask other Bible readers you know what they think. And be sure to write down your concerns so you can look for clues as you continue reading.
3. “A Vision” by Wendell Berry
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
4. Disfluent Fonts and Their Influence on Memory
I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a font snob. When I see people use cutesy fonts on their websites or flyers, or even use too many different, otherwise respectable fonts all together in a single document, I cringe a little. I came up through some old school design teaching that decided that two different fonts was ideal for a single project, one serif and one sans serif, and if you threw in a third, you better have a good reason for it. And by no means, under any circumstances, including the threat of bodily harm, should you ever use comic sans.
That’s probably why this recent essay at LitHub caught my eye: The Ugliness of Comic Sans Has a Practical Use, and particularly the subtitle, “Jonah Lehrer on the Easy Recall of Certain ‘Disfluent’ Fonts.”
In a nutshell, researchers tested student recall of class materials that were printed in more typical academic fonts, like Helvetica and Arial, and so-called disfluent fonts, or fonts used less frequently, like Comic Sans (CRINGE!). Surprisingly, they discovered that student retention of the information was much higher with the materials printed in disfluent fonts than the typical fonts.
“Think, for a moment, about the strange implications of this research,” writes Lehrer. “The primary goal of typography is to create legible text. This is especially true in the digital age. Amazon, for instance, brags that Bookerly, its custom font for the Kindle, makes reading easier on the eyes, allowing us ‘to read faster with less eyestrain.’ Company logos, meanwhile, are designed to maximize fluency, which is why American Airlines, Jeep, Target, Nestlé, and Toyota all rely on versions of Helvetica. The irony is that the research suggests that the effortless processing might lead to less attention and retention. Easy in, easy out.”
Not surprising is the neuroscience behind these findings. The brain thrives on efficiency, which allows it to save energy. When we form a habit or do a task repetitively, our brains create shortcuts so that the tasks become, almost literally, mindless. “These shortcuts aren’t a faster form of thinking,” Lehrer writes. “They’re a way of skipping thought altogether.”
But when we come to new information or a new task that is unfamiliar to our brain, it has to slow down, work a little harder, processing each step or detail to overcome the deficit. In other words, feeding our brains something new or different “wakes us up or at least prevents us from leaning on the usual efficiencies.” You might even say it’s creating a new memory.
I wonder … what parts of your life are on autopilot? How might you benefit from training your brain to create more of these kinds of shortcuts? On the other hand, what “disfluency” could you add to your own life (not just fonts but processes or new information) to help you pay more attention and build better memories?
5. Once in a Blue Moon
Back in August, I read about a seasonal Blue Moon that crested on August 21-22, 2021. Usually, a blue moon refers to a second full moon in a single month. A seasonal blue moon is a little different. It’s a fourth full moon in a season (the time between a solstice and an equinox). Which means that even though the full moon on August 21-22 was the only full moon of that calendar month, and it was the third full moon of the season, because the fourth moon of summer has its own special name based on its proximity to the autumn equinox (Harvest Moon), the third moon got the Blue Moon designation.
The name Blue Moon caught my attention as more than just an astronomical phenomenon. It’s part of folklore and the way people used to mark time and track memory. Since blue moons of both varieties happen only about once every 2-3 years, saying something happens, “Once in a blue moon,” means it’s pretty infrequent.
But other astronomical events happen even less frequently than that, which makes them significant touch points for surrounding memories. I’m thinking of the 2017 solar eclipse, for instance, which had millions of us cutting out the tops of cereal boxes so we could watch without damaging our eyes. And there have been others over the years: not just eclipses but the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn last December, the Hale-Bopp comet and two others back in the 1990s, meteor showers, solar storms, and supernovas.
In earlier times, communities and cultures would not only remember and celebrate historical events based on their proximity to astronomical sitings, they would assign meaning and even predict the future based on what they saw in the night sky. The star in the east indicating the birth of Jesus is just one example. The sky was not just a void overhead, but a place of mystery, awe, and memory.
What if we recaptured some of that wonder for ourselves? I’m not suggesting we give up our calendars or watches. But what if we paid attention to the way the events of our lives lined up with the cycles of the moon and the stars? What if we remembered important events in our lives based on when the planets aligned? What if we thought about our days and years based on the rotation of the earth and our trips around the sun? How might that change our perspective and help us tap into something elemental about what and how we remember?
By the way, the National Geographic is great at helping you know what look for in the night sky. Check out their family guide to stargazing the fall sky.
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Until next time,