I recently finished reading an interesting book about memory and memory techniques called “Moonwalking with Einstein”. It discusses how people can train to improve their memory, and how some people are gifted with an almost photographic memory while others have trouble remembering their own address. This naturally prompted me to think about my own memory.
I’ve always had a really powerful memory. Growing up, I could remember infinite phone numbers, birthdays, and dates of historic events. You’ll want to be on my team on quiz night, haha. One thing that came in particularly handy during middle and high school was my near photographic memory. I could easily recall everything I had read if I had read it just once – I could even visualize where it was written on the page.
So obviously, this memory has been helpful when studying Korean. In fact, learning languages in general has always been something that I found extremely easy and, most importantly, fun. Also, while growing up, I never had to practice spelling. My mind’s eye had photographed and stored mental images of all the words I knew, which was a lot, since I read several books a week. As a result, I could immediately see if a word was misspelled, simply because something about that word didn’t “look right” – it just didn’t match my mental image. It would take me a bit longer if I had to spell something out loud, but even that I did pretty well. Today this memory helps me remember Chinese characters when studying Korean and Japanese.
Just like my visual memory may be near photographic in some cases, my auditive memory also sometimes works like a voice recorder. I can recall not only what people have said, but the sequence of their words and their intonation and their expression as they spoke. When I think back, it’s kind of like replaying an audio track. Thinking about it, this may be why it’s fairly easy for me to not just learn but also speak foreign languages with as close to a native accent as possible for a non-native speaker. I simply press play in my head and listen to what a native speaker has said and then try to mimic that when I speak myself. Some may mockingly call this “parroting” but that is actually how children learn to speak their mother tongue.
Does this powerful memory work for everything? Absolutely not. There are tons of things I forget simply because I never bother to store them in my brain in the first place. If I don’t let something become internalized I’ll forget it as soon as my thoughts shift to something else. That’s why I’m just as forgetful as the next person when it comes to things like grocery lists and remembering names of co-workers’ children. It’s just not important enough to warrant permanent storage in my brain. Even Einstein is said not to have known his own phone number, since his belief was that it was futile to memorize something that could easily be looked up.
I never really considered my good memory anything more than a handy skill that certainly helped me in my academic career. It’s just conveniently made it easier to read loads of literature and retain the key points, I can effortlessly give lectures without script, and I use my memory for building and maintaining professional and personal relations.
But now I’ve grown to become more thankful for my memory than ever before. Since my best friend passed away I’ve been replaying every encounter, every meal, every joke, every fight, and discussion in my head over and over again, and I’m so incredibly thankful for my memory in this situation. Last week, I made up my mind to try to write down all the dates of our meetings in Korea. (Since we met pretty much every day in Denmark – writing down those dates made less sense). I made a spreadsheet and wrote down all the dates – over a period of less than two years we met 51 times. And these are just the times that we actually hung out together. On top of that we were in contact with each other almost daily.
I was so excited to see how easy it was for me to recall exactly what we had done, what and where we had eaten, and what we had talked about in all of those 51 instances. I could recall all of his jokes, at which street corner he had made me burst into laughter, in which coffee shop we had a certain discussion, where we were sitting in the restaurant, which restaurant wouldn’t serve us beer, when and where he sang which song, etc. In many cases, I could even recall the exchange of text messages we had in advance of the meeting. Everything was as clear in my memory as if we had met just yesterday.
My friend appeared to have a similar type of memory. We remembered things in the same way, and frequently relived our memories together thereby reinforcing them in each other. At one point, he mentioned some trivial detail that I had told him a year and half before, and when I told him that I was amazed at his memory he said that he remembered everything I had ever told him. I believe him, because I feel that I remember everything he has ever told me. I even find that in most cases I remember exactly when and where and how he said things. Recalling these situations is like seeing him and hearing his voice play clearly in my head. What a gift!
Because he loved taking pictures, I’m happy to say that I have hundreds of pictures of us together and several videos that we would sometimes shoot when we were together. He was always very insisting that we “make some memories” and for that I am thankful.
I’ll cherish these memories forever and by being able to dive into them whenever I want to, I’m keeping him alive inside me and carrying him with me wherever I go. To quote the kind widow Anne in the Netflix series After Life: “I have all those memories. That’s all we really are – memories.”