413: Formative

A Thousand Things to Talk About
413: Formative

What memory or memories do you consider most formative in who you are today?

Show notes and links:
Time Ideas Blog
WUSTL Magazine

Full episode script

In the Winter 22005 Washington University of Saint Louis magazine article How Our Memories Shape Us, quoted Pascal Boyer, Henry Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory in Arts & Sciences in saying

As parents, we try to create these wonderful memories for our children, but they tend to remember rather banal details. My 3-year-old son remembers much more about the terminals in the Chicago airport than the beauty of the mountains in Montana we went to see. But it is quite likely children remember the details that are most important to their development, not what we imagine they’ll remember.

Memory helps shape us and who we consider ourselves. As PBS put it in a 2010 article:

About 270 years ago, the Scottish philosopher David Hume, in his seminal work “A Treatise of Human Nature,” offered what was, at that time, a radical notion of human identity: that the “self,” as we conceive of it, is not a single spiritual or psychological entity, like a “soul,” but rather a collection of discrete sensations and impressions — a “bundle,” as he called it. Connections between these individual perceptions give rise to the idea of a continuous “self.” And memory gives that self lasting force.What, then, is a self without memory? Or, rather, what would happen if we were to remove some memories and add others? By Hume’s account, the bundle would change, and so necessarily would the self. We would be different people, in small but significant ways.

Which makes it even more complex, considering that research is telling us that memory is less about what actually happened and more about how we relate to those experiences. From Time’s Ideas blog in 2013:

There is arguably little evolutionary advantage to being able to recall the past in vivid detail; it is much more useful to be able to use past experience to predict what comes next. So why are we so attached to our idea of memories as fixed, unchanging possession? There are many reasons, but one is that memories are foundational for our sense of self. This is particularly true for early childhood memories (which the scientists tell us are the most unreliable of all). In her striking description of lying as a small child in her cot at St. Ives, Virginia Woolf noted that this wasn’t just her earliest memory; it was the moment she became the person (and the writer) she was. It is no wonder that we resist the idea that our memories are collages of disparate sources of information, assembled and reassembled long after the event. Bracing as it might be, this new way of thinking about memory does not have to lead to self-doubt. It simply requires that we take our memories with a pinch of salt, and forge new relationships with them.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.