Life is full of surprises, paradoxes and irony. One rather perplexing one is what I am often confronted with. On one hand I am told “please remind me” and on the other hand I am told “why are you repeating yourself?”
How am I to know what has registered in your head? The fact that you are requested to be reminded of many things gives the impression that a good memory is not your strong point. So, I think I am being diligent in reminding you.
I smile when people are sharing their oft-repeated stories and jokes, simply because I don’t want to steal their moment and joy. But when am I chided for repeating something I might have said once before, I do feel a bit bad. But it’s like expecting a tiger not to eat you, because you are a vegetarian. Same logic, I guess.
So, what is memory exactly and how does it work? The basic functions of memory are encoding, storing, and retrieving. Encoding is the process of learning information. Then, our brain stores information, either in short-term memory or long-term memory. While short-term memories don’t last long in the brain, some are passed along to our long-term memory. Retrieval is the fascinating process of recalling our memories. While we tend to forget mundane information, our brains are more likely to store information that is attached to strong emotions.
Memory is the essence of our daily functioning, essential for every move we make – whether it is getting dressed, having breakfast, driving, working or simply making a cup of tea. Nothing we do in our conscious daily lives does not require memory. That’s why I have the deepest respect for memory.
So, what is memory used for, and why is forgetfulness so prevalent? Memory serves to give us a record of our lives, to remember the past, live in the present and to plan for the future. It is essential for a sense of being. And while memory lapses can be frustrating, there are ways around them.
One of the most common examples we see in our everyday lives is of forgetting our keys (and now the mobile). We definitely need to find a solution for it. It’s a simple but effective solution which requires practice: always put your keys in the same place. In many homes, at the entrance itself, you have a cabinet or holder to place your keys. Remember to do so there and then. Postponing means asking for trouble. Or, if I want to remember someone’s name, I ensure that on meeting them, I make an extra effort to register their face, say their name aloud, and that seems to register better.
The reality of remembering everything would be an overwhelming experience. So, for most of us, forgetting things is not just normal — but sometimes even desirable. A very interesting thing was told to me by my doctors when I was in coma. I could not remember a thing or feel anything for 40 days. A total blackout. The doctors said that it happens many a time and this is called the body’s protective mechanism to block out all the pain that it is enduring (with all the needles and procedures going on to keep me alive). I found it fascinating and for the first time I admired the fact that not having a memory of a certain incident or period of your life can indeed be such a blessing.
This comes to selective memory, when the same person can remember what happened decades ago and not who they met yesterday. I think that’s because in certain things and people we have a deep interest in and attachment and in others we don’t. Nothing wrong with that (as long as you remember your keys!). We are not winners of quizzes who need to remember all the answers to every conceivable question, neither do we have the brains of Shakuntala Devi.
We should collect beautiful memories in our hearts and mind that we can savor any time. Life has its ups and downs, and when we are in lockdown, we can still smile when we think of our last holiday in a mountain resort with our loved ones. That is the miracle of memory: making you feel happy when the situation around you may not be so. The ability or at least the effort to erase unpleasant ones is equally important because those memories rob us of our sleep and happiness.
My take on the famous serenity prayer — God, grant me the power to remember all the beautiful moments that I have spent, the ability to erase all the unpleasant ones, and the wisdom to appreciate the difference.
Shilpa Bhasin Mehra is a legal consultant based in Dubai and the founder of SBM Consultancy (formerly Legal Connect).
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