Wednesday, April 1, 2009

If (When) Memory Fails

(Picture taken of me and my son in 1967)

While at the used bookstore last month, I looked for a good read that I knew I would enjoy, so I looked at books by some of my favorite authors. Pat Conroy's books, especially The Prince of Tides, are remembered as having been really good. I rummaged through the books and found a big fat one, The Lords of Discipline, and after having looked through it, figured I'd found a good read.

The book is about a military school and the way these schools break young men to become leaders. It was, indeed, a good book. But when I reached a point somewhere in the 400-plus range, I realized, for the first time, that I had read the book before! Something happened in the story that triggered a memory. But I did not remember any of the story until that moment.

This started me thinking about memory, and I went on line (of course) and found information about remember/know judgments. Our memory is not only faulty, but when we remember or know something (which is how we usually use our memory), there is no way to determine if what you remember is correct, except by external verification.
Remembering and knowing are states of awareness that accompany the retrieval of facts, faces, and experiences from our past. Although originally intended to separate episodic from semantic memory, the dominant view today is that recollection-based decisions underlie remember responses, whereas familiarity-based decisions underlie know responses.
What made me wonder about my not remembering the story until I was well into it was that I could not figure out which of these fit my forgetfulness. I have since determined that, since I read the story when I was in my twenties, I basically was not the same person who read the book in her sixties. My frames of reference are different, my life experiences are much more vast, and the young girl who read about a military school had very little to hang her mind around at the time.

I am now much more familiar with human conditioning that leads to behavior modification, and while I was a pliant, malleable person then, I was also not very reflective and seldom pondered deeper meanings of books of fiction. After thinking about writing this post, I wondered if my readers have experienced anything similar, or is it just that my brain has become so full that my memories are now spilling out my ears?


  1. Oh, yeah. I'm with you sister! Memories change continually, like the tail wagging the dog. (This from a thin book called "Time" by Alan Watts (I think, but I might be misremembering!)

    I too, loved Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. And I too, have had that experience of getting partway through a book I was reading, only to realize I've read it before.

    A lot to ruminate on in this post, my friend... BTW, beautiful photograph of you and your son.

  2. Thanks, Linda. The picture was taken by my then-husband, not long after we got married. I have always liked the innocent people in that picture. Interestingly, I also picked up a book by a brain doctor who had a stroke (My Stroke of Insight) and the story of what she learned about the brain and memory.

  3. I've done that with a book too DJan. Something draws you back to the book and it isn't always the same as the first time, but they are like old friends, aren't always find something different. The same is true of films; I remember some bits and not others. Love the picture of you both together. You have amazing bone structure.
    Blessings, Star


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