They say we don’t remember anything really prior to the age of three.
No doubt there are innumerable emotional memories from infancy, but in my case my earliest visual memory was the dedication of my infant sister: I was exactly three. It’s funny how the brain works though. I used to pore over my mother’s photo albums as a child, collecting all the images of those photographs – mental photographs of photographs – and arranging them chronologically in my mind. I can go back in time and enter the room of a home in which my relatives are compiled and see myself as an infant cradled in someone’s arms or sitting on someone’s lap. I can look around at the furniture and the faces and hairdos and fashion, can even hear some of their voices and laughter (which I’ve taken from later memories and projected backward into these ones), and those moments in time are stored with the first person memories that began in the preschool years. But they’re not firsthand memories – they’re only memories of photographs.
The mind’s eye is a fascinating thing. Did the generations before me do the same thing with black and white photos, removing the grays in their mind and filling it all in with color, making that the superimposed memory instead of sepia? And before photography, did they take the stories about their toddler years, told them by relatives, and store them chronologically, as imagined, with their firsthand experiences just as I did with photographs? Probably. Indeed, even the stories my parents and grandparents told me about their own childhoods, teen and adult years, are stored chronologically in my memory as well, as though I really saw and heard those things happen with my own two eyes and two ears. Does everyone do this or is it the writer’s nature in me, the way I build scenes in my mind and freely wander through them exploring? But how accurate are those images? When I see my father as a boy, stooping with surprise to pick up a human skull in the overgrown grass of a field in India, freckle-faced, brown hair slicked to one side, and a button down shirt tucked into his jeans, does that fabricated video reel look anything like the literal experience my father had? Either way, it’s the same story, regardless of the color of his shirt. Could I tell you what species of trees were backdropping the field or where exactly in India it took place? No, I don’t even know what trees grow in India, besides the rubber tree. But I nevertheless see his story like a memory. There are tangled trees and wheat-like grasses, a dry cracked skull in the palm of his hand. No doubt it’s an amalgamation of all the images of fields and skulls I’ve ever seen in my life. But somehow I feel like I was there.
Whenever I read literature written in the 18th and 19th centuries, I think about how much understanding of geography and history had to be gleaned from drawings and books in those days, unless one had the privilege of traveling. Today we have the advantage of cinematography. I can fly over and through a gorge with a bird’s-eyed view. I can go on YouTube and look at virtual reality photographs and videos of famous landmarks. It’s all so detailed and sophisticated. But I bet the imaginings of those writers a century or two ago were just as vivid without all of that. I remember playing Sierra’s “Space Quest” as a child and to see it now, I’m reminded just how pixelated it was, how blurry and lacking in detail, compared to the games now available to my children. But back when I was immersed in those games, all the pixelation and blurriness vanished as my mind superimposed perfectly clear scenery into the game. I can easily remember the game both ways – how it really looked and how I transformed it. Either way, it was the same story and the same settings.
Sometimes this happens with people too, especially when memories span across decades. I can easily superimpose their previous figure over their current one. One minute I see my grandpa as he is today. Bent over with a walker, face drawn into permanent lines that give him a look of perpetual sadness, eyes that no longer recognize me, and suddenly he’s standing upright, shoulders back, thirty pounds heavier, white hair now gray with brown weaving through, a wide smile and eyes alight with recognition. There’s this one driveway we pass by on the way to the family cottage and I always see him standing there on the grass next to a decorative boulder, wearing a caramel leather jacket, strong and self-sufficient. It’s like seeing a ghost, but it’s only a memory from nearly three decades ago, and besides, he’s still alive. And the weird thing is, though I was standing right next to him when I made that memory (we’d taken a walk together), half his height and staring up to see his face, I now see that memory from twenty feet away, as though I had been the same height and was looking at him from across the street.
That being said, sometimes there are gaps in memory where even though you could fill in the blanks easily enough – for whatever reason, you don’t bother. Perhaps it depends on how important it is to know it or see it. I remember visiting my mother’s best friend from high school in downtown Toronto when I was around six or seven, and in that memory, I can walk down the sidewalk, the cedar hedgerows taller than me, go through the gate and up to the front door where I’m pretty much eye level with the doorknob from where I stand at the bottom of two steps. However if I try to look up as you would in a virtual reality, there’s nothing there: the building dissipates into whiteness, into nothing. I bet you I never looked up, not even once. That’s why there’s nothing there.
The mind’s eye.
A virtual reality, a time machine, a teleporter. The writer Peter Rollins says every person’s unique mind is like the Tardis from Dr. Who – infinite.
Dr Who (316350537).jpg by “aussiegall from sydney”, Australia, Wikimedia – Used With Permission Under CC BY 2.0