"Happy Memorial Day" Remember and Honor

How Memories Make Us Who We Are 

We just celebrated Memorial Day, when we pause to remember and appreciate the many sacrifices of soldiers who served in wars throughout American history. I thought we might pause to consider the nature of memories, how essential they are in making us human, and how flawed they can be.

Here’s some amazing information: according to a blog from medanta.org entitled What Is the Memory Capacity Of A Human Brain?

“As mentioned in an article in Scientific American, the memory capacity of a human brain was testified to have equal to 2.5 petabytes of memory capacity.  A ‘petabyte’ means 1024 terabytes or a million gigabytes so that the average adult human brain can accumulate the equivalent of 2.5 million gigabytes of memory. As per the reports of the study conducted by Stanford, the human brain compares constructively with the most authoritative modern computers. The cerebral cortex in the human brain is proficient in possessing 125 trillion synapses, which may stock as much as 2.5 petabytes of overall memory capacity.” Wow!

To appreciate how different regular memories are as compared to traumatic memories, Bessel Van der Kolk, in his introduction to the Peter Levine book Trauma and Memory shares the following: “…the difference between ordinary memories (stories that change and that fade with time) and traumatic memories (recurring sensations and movements that are accompanied by intense negative emotions of fear, shame, rage, and collapse) is the result of a breakdown of the brain systems that are responsible for creating ‘autobiographical memories.’”

It turns out that ordinary memories are not all that reliable over time. I remember being so sure that the hedge cutters in my garage were green only to discover they were red in color. I remember being frustrated that my brain could not keep track of something as simple as the color of hedge cutters. On the other hand, having a significant trauma history, when I experience flashbacks, they are crystal-clear, and I feel as if I am back in time with all the visuals, smells, and other sensations.

In the book Sybil which documents the story of a highly traumatized young woman, her psychiatrist shares that at some point she went back to Sybil’s childhood home and climbed up the ladder to a loft in the barn where she opened a small wooden traveling case and she found the scratches of a yellow crayon that Sybil had told her she used when she was held hostage there at about the age of three or four.

There are many songs that highlight the power and importance of our memories. I think of the lyrics of the song, “Try to Remember” by The Brother Four and “Memories” from the Broadway show Cats as two examples.

Our memories make up much of who we are, even when they fade and are less accurate. They also help us ensure as best as we can that we do not repeat behaviors that were harmful to us or others. As philosopher George Santayana stated in a series he wrote in 1905 called Great Ideas of Western Man, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As we move into summer there are many opportunities to remember our past, to be grateful to those in the miliary who made so many sacrifices, to embrace the joys of vacations spent with family members, to remembering times as a child when we could play outside until dark with no worries about finishing schoolwork. Happy memories are to be cherished. Sad ones are to be embraced especially when they honor someone or something that involves grief, sadness and loss. People create scrap books and write journals to preserve important memories. Families can make the time to reminisce and therefore celebrate shared history. We have the power to access at least some of our billions of memories to tell us who we are. What a gift memories are to us! 

 Invitation for Reflection:

  1. What are some of your memories around summertime, Memorial Day celebrations, vacations, family gatherings? Which ones bring you joy and gratitude? Which ones are mingled with things that involve sadness and loss?
  2. Why do you think it is important to remember the idea that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it? Does this help you to appreciate why we need to study the history of our families, this country, and even World History?