Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Early obstacles to remembering

As soon as I began this process of remembering each day of my life, my mind rebelled.

The image on my mental calendar marking the first day was of having lunch in the garden centre with my wife and friends. It was easy enough to recall as I quickly ran through the day that evening as I lay down to sleep, as I would often do.

The problem came the next day. The image pinned to 18 December was the carol singers at the market square, which easily brought back memories of the rest of that day. Remembering the image of the previous day was not hard; it was still so fresh. But it felt a bit like trying to attract the pole of a magnet with the same pole of another magnet: getting closer, pushed it away.

This happened during the first week. It was not so much that it was hard to remember, but that I didn't want to remember. Remembering three or four days of memory tags was an effort, then how much would it be when weeks and months of memories began to pile up? It was a daunting endeavour and perhaps it was better to stop, rather than fail or become increasingly obsessed with trying to remember.

Then it struck me, it was hard, because I didn't want to remember. This was a break from my usual routine. Normally the memories that stayed with me drifted into the fog of the past without me having to do anything. Trying to fix them and pin them to a date involved work.

But remembering the people with hyperthymesia, who remembered every day since they were young, I thought perhaps my brain does have this ability and it is just a case of learning how to use it. Or perhaps not learning, but allowing the skill to manifest itself.

I have been at my best acquiring new skills when I have taken the view that it is a process of discovering something I somehow already know. Like a sculptor finding a figure locked in a block of alabaster, the process involves chipping away to find the shape existing within.

As the week progressed, I would scan backwards past the images for each day when cycling to work, when lying down to sleep. Sometimes I had to pause for a moment to remember, but always found the key image. After the first week, I could look back to what I was doing the previous Saturday: having lunch in the garden centre.

And now the rewards were suddenly more significant than the effort. Days transition into each other and it can be sometimes a shock, sometimes revealing or comforting, to be aware of their passing. It was just a week ago we were in the garden centre buying Christmas gifts and now it was Christmas 'eve and they were beneath the tree at my parents' house.

In another week we had come back home, home being the flat we moved into after Christmas. Christmas was over and the decorations still in some shops seemed out of place, one still playing Christmas tunes an outrage. But flip back a week and it was Christmas 'eve. Another, and there we were, with the excitement of preparing for it.

Back beyond that week and I was struggling to remember what I had been doing. The days on my internal calendar had no images. Now over a month has gone I can tell you what I was doing on any one of those days. Some earlier memories had dates attached and I have been able to pin those images on. But otherwise, it is either a vague notion of where I was, and sometimes not even that.

This difference has provided my motivation to continue. Even my mind seems to appreciate the benefit and is no longer the obstacle that it was.

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