Recently, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of memory, specifically how our ability to retain memories changes as we age.
A lot of research has gone in to a specific phenomenon known as “childhood amnesia,” which is the idea that we lack the ability to retain memories from the first 3 to 4 years of our lives. It’s not like we didn’t have memory when we were babies and toddlers, but our long-term memory was still developing during that period. One study at Emory University had children at the age of 3, with prompting from their parents, recall details about birthday parties and trips to the zoo. The researches then followed up with the children when they were between the ages of 5 and 9 to see how much they could still remember. The children aged 5 to 7 could remember a significant portion of the events, while the 8 to 9-year old children could barely remember over a third of the details they had originally recounted.
The researches concluded that as our brains develop in early childhood, our minds act like strainers, retaining only the most vivid or significant details of our early life and letting the rest fall through the cracks until our brains are developed enough to store more details.
It’s also important to note that not only are our memories highly subjective, but they can be altered our attempts to recall and convey them to other people. According to one study from Northwestern Medicine, we create new memories on top of the original memory every time we recall or tell someone about a particular memory and that new memory (of remembering the memory) can replace the original memory in our mind. Thus, every time you change your impressive fishing story about the one that got away, adding details and making the fish appear bigger and bigger each time, you can change how you originally remembered the event and convince yourself your embellishments are true.
I know this is true for myself because I have a few early memories that are completely impossible but I’m convinced are true. When I was a kid, our backyard faced another house’s backyard where an older kid lived. That kid liked to come over to play with my brother and me, which I’m sure my parents and brother can back up, but I distinctly remember this kid jumping over the 5-and-a-half-foot fence that separated our two backyards. Of course this couldn’t possibly be true, yet the image of him leaping this fence from a standing position and landing right in our backyard is fixed in my mind.
Maybe I saw him climb the fence and then exaggerated the details for myself or maybe the kid told me he could totally jump that fence if he wanted but he just didn’t feel like it and I believed him completely because I was 4 or 5. It doesn’t really matter. The point is our memories are faulty, not just in childhood, but through our entire lives.
Even if you are old enough to be able to tell the difference between a practical memory and one that’s physically impossible, you still might reshape events from your past to suit how you tell them today and how you want to understand your own past. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t trust anything you ever remember, but just to be aware that every story is subjective and be mindful of your own biases when recounting something.
I’m saying all this because I’ve become fascinated with my own past as of late and piecing together parts of my own memory that I haven’t thought about for a long time. I’ve talked a lot on here about my various struggles, like my problems with self-esteem, fear of failure, my fear of abandonment, my depression, and my anxieties. But this is a bit different. This time I want to talk about something I’ve never thought too much about: unconscious motivations.
See I’ve always favoured rational thinking and logic to understand both the world around me and inner self. I never gave any credence to gut instincts or acting on impulses without having a conscious understanding of why that act is good or bad.
Yet, I’ve found there are aspects of my personality that are still driven by unknown factors. And although I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years working on my mental health and trying to have a better understanding of both who I am and who I want to be, certain areas of my “self” seemed beyond my reach. Or rather, they were consciously beyond my reach.
Of course I could talk about Freud or Jung or whoever else with regards to understanding how unconscious impulses form and how they interact with conscious decision making, but I don’t think I’m gonna try and nail anything concrete down. All I can say is that for myself, I wanted to know more about why I still have irrational responses to certain things.
I’ve figured out quite a bit about myself through looking through my own memories. For example, I’ve talked about how I have a history of being ignored and left behind in social situations, which has given me a big ol’ fear of both abandonment and missing out. Just being able to look back and see a cause for some of my actions has helped me acknowledge and even resist my fears to live a healthier adult life. Like I said above, though, memories are highly subjective, so I can’t claim the way I remember things is exactly how they happened. All I can do is recognize that the way I both initially perceived an event and then how I told and retold that event to myself again and again (replacing the original memory) affected who I am today.
But what about memories I haven’t told to myself multiple times? Do they still affect me even if I don’t think about them anymore and my brain doesn’t “rewrite” them? Can these memories, dormant deep in my subconscious, still play a role in who I am?
I mean, probably, right?
I wanted to try something. I wanted to see if I could look back to my early childhood and find a memory that I no longer consciously acknowledge but was still retained as “important” in my subconscious mind. As mentioned above, we tend to only retain memories from early childhood that are “vivid” or “significant” enough for the brain to bother storing them.
So I started thinking back, all the way back to my earliest days. Well, the earliest days as I could picture them. I mentally went through a list of my earliest memories to see which ones stuck out to me. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I’d know it when I found it.
Obviously there was the one about the kid leaping the fence. That’s a pleasant enough memory, if not obviously subjectively skewed. Then there’s my parents giving my brother and I matching trilby hats for church. I seem to recall being super juiced about my hat and running around the house wearing it. Cool, cool. There’s playing with toys, making up silly songs, watching TV. What was I watching? Oh yeah…
Huh. That guy shows up a lot in these memories. There I am jumping on the couch pretending to shoot webs. There I am naming my toy train “Spider-man” because uh, I guess that’s a good name for a train? Oh hey, there I am playing with my Spider-man action figure and then…
Yup, I think I found something significant.
I definitely remember this toy and I definitely remember losing it. I was a super upset. That was my favourite toy and I was devastated I couldn’t find it anywhere. I remember my mom trying to help me look for it. She even called another adult to see if I had left it at their place. But no such luck. It was gone forever.
Man, I haven’t thought about that in years but I was really, really sad. I can’t seem to remember but I bet a threw a tantrum or something. And even just remembering it, I still feel sad. I was given other Spider-man toys, but I remember nothing could live up to that first one. I was really broken up about it.
OK, I started thinking this might be the kind of memory that is still affecting me in some way. So… what do I do about it. Well, this sounds a bit weird, but I decided if this memory affects my unconscious in some way, maybe I should follow it to find a solution. I thought maybe I needed to follow my gut instinct. Figured it couldn’t hurt.
Turns out my gut instinct was that I still missed that toy and I still wanted it back. Obviously that toy is long gone now, but I did have the internet on my side. After a quick search of “90s+Spiderman+toy,” I found the exact one I was looking for.
That was it all right. Look at it, in all its cheap 90s majesty.
And if I kept listening my gut, I knew li’l Clay living in my memories still wants this thing back. So… I bought it. As it just so happens, 20+ year-old action figures are pretty cheap on eBay. Shipping is not, but still!
But why did I do this? Am I just following the instincts of my toddler self? If that’s true, then in theory I would also feel an impulse to buy back all the Lego pieces I dropped down the drain when I decided it was a good idea to take a bath with my Lego sets. And, thinking back to that memory… naw, I think I’m good.
Was this some sort of Citizen Kane thing, where the secret to my character flaws and self-destructive behaviour lies in a small toy, the one last vestige of a long lost childhood, preemptively quashed by a forced push into adulthood. Again, naw, I don’t think so.
I thought about why I felt the need to buy this thing for a while and what I came up with was this:
Beyond my earliest patchy memories, I remember suddenly being very serious and very sad. I remember ashamed a lot of the time. I remember being afraid to speak my mind, say what I wanted, tell anyone I had been hurt, or even enjoy anything too much from basically the end of my toddler years and onward.
Like I said, I’ve talked about a lot of this elsewhere, but I never thought back to just how long I felt bad about myself. I still have lots of happy memories from childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, but there were also long periods of feeling dumb, worthless, incapable, lonely, and distraught. I never thought very highly of myself and even moments of genuine pride and accomplishment never lasted longer than an hour or two before I was back to feeling ashamed of myself as a whole. For the most part, I never accepted myself as truly equal to the people around me, which caused me to resent a lot of them and feel ashamed to be near the rest.
I’ve been working very hard on changing that. Only through therapy and finding the right dose of medication have I been able to wake-up and feel good about who I am first thing in the morning. It sounds so small, but I can’t express what a major difference this is for me. The reason it took me so long to get help was because I grew up thinking having a poor opinion of yourself was normal, that not wanting to live in your own skin most of the time was standard. That was what my childhood was, save my earliest, earliest memories. I don’t think this anymore, for the most part, but that line of thinking deeply affected the core of who I am and how I see myself.
That’s why I realized I wasn’t buying this old Spider-man toy to make up for something I’d lost or to recapture a forgotten childhood. I realized I was doing it to show myself the kindness I rarely gave myself as a child. Unconsciously, my brain drew an association between my favourite toy of my toddler years and the happiness of being myself that I withheld from myself for decades. The act of purchasing it was like reaching back to my former self and saying, “You deserve this. You are valuable and you should be proud of who you are. You deserve to love you.”
I realized that loving myself, who I am now, is a very, very good thing. But I can’t love myself on the basis of “well now that you’ve worked on your mental health, you’re worthy of love.” I need to tell myself, consciously, that I was always worthy. I still look back at old photos and feel shame at the way I looked, what I wore, how I acted, and even how ashamed I felt back then. I need to undo all of that. I need to be able to see who I was, every single version of who I was, and love that Clay just as much as I love myself and the people around me in the present.
That means unlearning a lot of unconscious behaviour. That means going over a lot of memories and reminding myself I had nothing to be ashamed of in any of them. That’s going to take a while.
I’ll just have to take it one step at a time.