Memory (Voluntary and Involuntary)

Ever since I read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, I’ve been fascinated by what he calls “involuntary memory,” the concept of remembering without consciously trying to remember. I find that my involuntary memory is most often triggered when I’m going through the day and suddenly recall something that reminds me of a dream I had the night before. It’s a little odd… all of a sudden, you might kneel down to tie your shoe and see a cicada on the sidewalk, and remember out of the blue that you dreamed about cicadas the night before.

Perhaps your involuntary memory is more often triggered by a certain scent. You might be walking down the hallway in the building where you work and pass someone who’s wearing a perfume that your mother or your ex-girlfriend used to wear all the time. I think, a lot of the time, that involuntary memories are much stronger and clearer than memories you consciously try to recall.

With regular memory, sometimes only a few particular details stick out in your mind — usually sensory or emotional details — and other times, you might be able to remember with such accuracy it was as though the event happened only yesterday.

A few nights ago, I was lying in bed trying to remember events of my sixth grade year, which I always have a difficult time remembering for some reason. Mostly, I remembered the names of people (not really their faces), and then I remembered certain events associated with those people. I got out of bed and wrote down several of those memories so that perhaps, when I looked at them later, they would spawn more memories. My memory doesn’t pick up on spatial details — I generally remember where my old middle school was, but not the buildings around it or how far up the road it was.

But what’s a bit scary about memory is how, with each year, the old memories begin to fade. I can recall a detail about sixth grade now, but in a few months, it won’t be as clear. That’s why I try to write down as many memories as I possibly can. I’ve heard it said that writing improves memory, and for the most part, that seems to be true.

2 thoughts on “Memory (Voluntary and Involuntary)

  1. I’ve read that smell is the sense that’s most tied to memory in this way. It certainly seems to be in my experience.

    Also, have you seen the movie Strange Days? One of my favorite movies, and (among many other things) it deals with memory, coming to the conclusion that “Memories are supposed to fade. They’re designed that way for a reason.”

    (Not that I’m against writing them down –it can be a really good idea. When they get written down, they’re already being turned into something else.)


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