The Science of Memory



I used to think that the best kinds of memories are the ones we invent for ourselves.



Lena K. Felton '17

I used to think that the best kinds of memories are the ones we invent for ourselves.

I’ve always imagined this scene of a dusky New Mexico, or maybe Arizona: I’m driving down a desert highway, headed towards an orange sun that’s falling into the horizon, and hot air’s blowing through the window. I can see mountains out of the corner of my right eye, all purple and wrinkled with the last bit of the day’s light. I’m alone, gunning towards nowhere.

I’ve never been to New Mexico. I don’t know when I constructed such a specific scene in my mind; don’t know how I can so easily feel the hot air on my neck or why the mountains are such a specific purple somewhere between eggplant and Concord grape.

Maybe I liked memories like this because it was always too easy to fuck up the real ones.

Like, how is it that I don’t remember what the surgeon told me before my first ACL surgery three years ago, but I can still taste the gas that they put me to sleep with? It was like lead paint, silver-y and thick and poisonous. I still, sometimes, feel the sting of that anesthesia filling up my lungs. But I don’t remember the particulars of the next two, three days after that, when I had to stay at home. I can’t recall the classes I missed that week, or which magazines I leafed through in bed.

And I’d always thought that high school would play like a premiere-ready film reel in my mind, but those years blur together now.Instead, they’re punctuated by a few isolated events. A dark club a friend rented out for her birthday, where the strobe lights were pink and green. The taste of crunchy pasta with Nutella on top. The faded blue color of my Converse against a grassy hill that I hiked down one golden afternoon in November.

Isn’t it a little disconcerting to think your life might just be a long, drawn out drunken night, where whole years are blacked out? What kind of past can we create with only jagged bits of action that flicker around in our minds? My life seems to be strung together with loose twine. It’s jumpy, with no cohesion.

Now that college is speeding past me, basically slipping through my fingers as I write, I’ve been thinking a lot about what these years will look like later in life. So much of my time here is already swishing together, muddled, like run-off water in a drain pipe: nondescript instances of studying in cafes, eating long dinners in bright dining halls, plucking hot laundry from white machines.

That’s why I’m trying desperately to grasp at, and hold onto, certain memories. I keep replaying one brisk night I walked through campus alone, when a clear sky hung above me, and my feet shimmied through the dead leaves on the ground. All the shadows were a little golden with remnants of the day, and I felt so safe, so at home. Or a Tuesday when my two roommates and I cuddled on one twin bed and talked for an hour and a half, and I couldn’t stop laughing, and my chest felt light and heavy all at once with love.

Those moments occurred just a month or two ago; they’re still so fresh in my mind. But I certainly, too, want to remember the first months of college last year and how much I hated them. I want to remember the mugginess and the sleepless nights and the feeling of being unbearably alone. I want to remember the bad times, along with good because it makes everything much more beautiful when I can say I’ve experienced something difficult along the way. But even those sour recollections of college are beginning to look a little bit sepia-tone. Even those feel far away.

I guess that’s why invented memories have always seemed so attractive: they’re all mine, and I can mold and fumble them all I want. I can’t fuck up a memory if it never existed in the first place. I write and photograph for the same reason. I fear that, in only a couple years from now, they’ll be the only tangible things I’ll have to look back on. 

But invented memories and word documents and photographs won’t make me feel anything, necessarily. When the five-second clip of myself speeding across an infinite New Mexico horizon fades, I feel hollow inside. It’s just a pretty scene playing over and over in my mind.

There’s nothing I can say to my synapses or hippocampus to make my memories any more dependable or emotional or real. And I’m starting to realize that I shouldn’t want them to be infallible in the first place. I might forget what exactly it feels like to be 19 years old, living in Cambridge, and finally adjusting to college, but that’s also why we live in the present tense.

So for now, I’ll keep taking those walks alone through Cambridge, when everything smells fresh and sweet, and I’ll laugh until I cry with my friends. I’ll feel as much as I can, let in all the good with the bad, keep experiencing unforgettable events in real-time. That way, when the memories fade, I’ll still have the present to revel in.

Lena K. Felton ‘17 is an English concentrator in Dunster House. One of her earliest memories is trying bubblegum ice cream, then spitting out the pieces of gum into a Dixie cup. She hasn’t had the flavor since.