The relationship between story and memory

The latest gap

This morning I sat on my balcony eating oatmeal with blueberries (one of the foods routinely appearing on lists of brain enhancing foods) while a song drifted up from the street.

‘Why the sea on the tide, has no way of turning… more than this, there is nothing.’

I can’t remember the last time I heard the song, but I remember the song. Instantly a memory floods my mind. A memory from college in 1991 about the guy I knew obsessed with the band. The guy with the Flock of Seagulls haircut who lived on our floor. He played this song all the time…

Who sings it?

I couldn’t remember. I tried to take my own advice from my last article and wait. Could I retrieve the band’s name? After 5 minutes I searched for the band (not very long to wait, but I had other things to do).

I typed ‘more than this’ in to Google.

In less than a second I had the answer: Roxy Music. This triggered more of the memory of the guy who was obsessed with the band. He loved the lead singer, Bryan Ferry (Google reminded me of his name), and he played all of their songs.

Wait… did he?

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story

Could I honestly remember this specific person listening to this specific music? I thought I could. In fact, I began to construct an entire narrative about the man, the band and the music slipping out of his dorm room and down the hall to my ears as I read a book. My mind began building a memory with fine detail.

I stopped remembering and started thinking. There is truth in the story my mind began to tell me.

I knew a guy in college obsessed with Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry. I lived in a dorm. Students often played music in their rooms and I could hear the music in my room. I know there were times when I would hear my floor mates’ music while I read, but could I actually remember this moment 25 years in the past?

Maybe if I entertained the memory a little more a book I read at the time would insert itself in to the ‘memory’. I cannot vouch for this story. As I write it now, I can’t even be sure this person is from college, one of my Phoenix co-workers or a guy I trained for triathlons with.

Here is all I can vouch for: I knew a guy who loved Bryan Ferry.

This morning’s gap made me aware of the relationship between our stories and our memories. How sure am I of the stories I tell about my past?

The former New York Times journalist David Carr wrote about the conflict between story and memory in his memoir The Night of the Gun. Carr investigated himself. He interviewed people, collected documents and fact-checked his life. It’s fascinating to read the story of his own gaps and his efforts to fill them.

Story And Memory The Long Game Mind The Gap

Remembering to remember

In my last article I wrote about the need for time and rest in order for a memory to form. I’ve made two changes to my routine to provide this necessary component to memory formation and to beef up the facts of my story.

First, when I schedule a meeting, I give myself time before and after to ensure I’m able to remember. Ten minutes before, I clear my mind of distractions. I review information I will need during the meeting. This includes names of the people I’ll be meeting. The 10 minutes after the meeting is to collect my thoughts and allow the information to sink in.

Ever thought about something you should do then get up, walk in to another room and lose that thought as you cross the doorway? Yeah, me too. So now, instead of getting up and going back to my desk, I sit for 10 minutes and consolidate the information I’ve received. The trick is to remember to remember to do this. I do this with a series of alarms on my phone.

I’ll let you know if this helps my memory, but I can already tell you it is helping my mood and attitude. The closest I can get to back to back meetings is twenty minutes (10 minutes post, 10 minutes pre).

The second thing I’ve added to my meeting routine is note taking. I don’t take a lot of notes (unless required), but I take enough to jog a memory, to encourage an action or to ensure that random idea that came up during the meeting doesn’t wander off to the far reaches of my grey matter.

Because unlike Bryan Ferry and his band, Google can’t help me track down those semi-formed memories (yet).

Jay Mueller

Jay Mueller is a journalist and radio producer based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on Twitter @bad_producer. Send him an email

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