"Do not adjust your mind, the fault is in reality."
Memories are the defining feature of human identity. They underlie the decisions that help determine our future, they colour our reflections on the past, and they characterise our life stories. But our headspace is notoriously fluid, susceptible to damage, change and loss. The stories that we weave together from what we can recall, while an inimitable gateway into our personalities, are not entirely true.
Memories are as much a product of imagination as they are of the chemical connections between the neurons that fire them. Does that make them any less significant?
How and what we recall as we delve into the recesses of our memory store is susceptible to a host of flaws that mean what we remember may not always be real. The classic “rose-tinted” recollection signifies the romantic, fantastical tendencies of our human instinct.
But memories are nonetheless an invaluable record of lives and moments that preceded the digital era, in which every moment is relentlessly captured in multiple formats on camera or the internet, whether by our active choosing or by default. Perhaps the creativity required to conjure them up makes memories more interesting than digitised records.
In a recent article for the New York Review of Books, neurologist and documenter of human testimony, Oliver Sacks, commented on this fluid nature of memory:
“There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or re-experienced whenever they are recollected…Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves—the stories we continually re-categorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain.”
Sacks concluded his piece saying: “Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.”
And for many people, that is precisely the point – we harbour in our minds many countless realities that are subject to reinterpretation each time we recall them. The faults we see in our present reality, or the half-truths we see in other people’s narratives of a shared past, can be bypassed and altered by our own version of events. Either way, past realities are conjured up and retold through a series of communications.
In the case of refugees and Diaspora communities, whose stories have not been caught by the media glare, there are often no other records but memories. Unwillingly dislocated from all that might have been familiar, uprooted from homes, families and livelihoods, memories of a time preceding the upheaval can serve as a mental refuge in itself. They provide a gateway to the past, before we were altered by time, trauma and dislocation.
Caroline Moorehead found this many times over when documenting the journeys taken by refugees across Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In her 2005 book Human Cargo, A Journey Among Refugees, Moorehead writes that “exile and the memory of trauma and loss is an experience of bereavement many times over: loss of country, status, activity, social networks, reference points and family, all compounded by a sense of lost time, the lost hopes and ambitions of young and young adulthood”.
The refugees with whom Moorehead meets vividly recount the undeniable injustices they have survived, stories strung together from memories that demand to be captured lest the abuses they suffered go untold. Needless to say, refugee memories are a powerful form of narrative truth like no other.
Exiles often yearn to return to the places they were forced to leave, whether to re-engage with and so change the unfavourable status quo that forced their exit, or to go back to somewhere other than the Now in which they find themselves.
The idea of return itself is a murky one – it’s impossible to revive something that’s passed. But it’s a gripping concept – one that is captured best by the term ‘nostalgia’; taken from the Greek nestos for ‘return’ and algos for ‘suffering’. Nostalgia is a desire to rewind and pause, to keep things static and blot out the changes, to seek sanctuary in a place and time we once belonged, the loss of which pains us.
On the other hand, as the legendary scientist and raconteur Richard Feynman pointed out, “there is pleasure in recognising old things from a new viewpoint”. Feynman made the point that science, like storytelling, is a mode of enquiry into the reality of things. Its conclusions are never definitive because every answer prompts another question, every observation reveals another uncertainty.
Science, like storytelling, is driven by a desire to find 'the truth', to acquire knowledge and to control how and what of that knowledge is shared. Both, if honestly done, demonstrate that there is no such thing as ‘the’ truth – simply many facts, ideas and discoveries that are subject to reinterpretation each time they are relayed.
And that’s the key – the retelling of stories, the repeated recall of ideas keeps the narrative and the discussion alive. Permanency is not the point – it’s the process of arriving at a truth, the journeys you take to piece the stories together, that can reveal the greatest insights.