What's in a Memory?

> 20.10.2017

We’re constantly laying down memories. The rich experiences of our lives are stashed away in our minds in a seemingly impossible way. It’s so simple, so automatic, and so much!

Recalling memories is where it gets complicated. Our varied life experiences are stored in such different ways, with wildly disparate retrieval systems.

I was flicking through Facebook this morning and my attention fixed on a friend’s post of a child’s drawing with the caption:

What do Principals really do?

Kid’s answer: He says the announcements. Then he eats a donut.

A memory of me when I was four popped into my head and I commented:

This brought back a dear memory … when I was four, my mother was teaching fifth class at Miranda school and, sometimes, when my carer was unavailable, the ‘headmistress’ invited me to sit in her office with her and have tea, out of real China cups and saucers, and biscuits, and we’d have deep and meaningful chats (so I thought then). It made me feel very special.

But the original experience was so much richer. Now, I can’t recall the Principal’s name, what we talked about, or the types of cookies we ate. What I have is a fixed image, like a photo, of tiny me, my legs dangling above the floor, sitting across a big desk from someone (with no discernible facial features) in a pretty room, and a feeling of being very grown up. Even so, the memory fills me with joy.

It’s such a favourite—I know it’s always there when I want to bask in its warmth—and it’s woven into a fabric of connected stories.

Traumatic memories are completely different, which makes sense of course. But it’s not just because they don’t make us feel happy. It’s because they’ve never been integrated. Let me go into this a little.

Our memories are often laid down in stories with a beginning, middle, and end. I could tell the story above in a whole sequence located in a specific time, place and context and connected with what it meant to me, even when I was so young.

Traumatic memory doesn’t become storied; the brain forbids integration into a format and a narrative permitting conscious retrieval.

Bessel Van Der Kolk, in The Body Keeps the Score, suggests there’s good reason for this:

“…when people fully recall their trauma they ‘have’ the experience: They are engulfed by the sensory or emotional elements of the past.”


…we will retain an intense and largely accurate memory of the event for a long time.”

Van Der Kolk describes something I know so well. Others have called it a ‘re–experiencing phenomena’, which tend to occur more frequently and more intensely during times of current stress or change.

I’ll never forget a train journey in 2013, from Traralgon to Melbourne. It lasted two and a half hours. The first stretch was unremarkable. I sat reading, and thinking, and gazing out the window.

Everything changed after Pakenham. The train started to stop at every station. Until then, we’d flown through the countryside. Now we jolted to a stop, lurched to a start, and bounced sideways as the rackety–rack sound of wheels on tracks beat into my head and spun me out. No time between a start and a stop. The jerkity–jerk, rhythm and movement, sound and sensation took to me to the edge of the fall from a train when I was eleven. I was falling again. Falling and falling and falling. I was going to throw up.

I was sitting on a seat in the middle of a carriage. I couldn’t throw up there. I moved to the back row of unoccupied seats. No–one sitting beside to see me bowed over with my head between my knees. Trying to hold nausea in, trying not to spew. Reliving the accident. Viscerally.

I sat upright, self–consciously, when we stood at a station.

My thoughts raced. Images flashed into my mind.

I tried everything to survive.

I reasoned—why is this happening? Ah yes, this is my first train journey since my leg was amputated last year. It makes sense. The movement’s triggering me.

That only got me so far.

I distracted myself—where do I know the name Pakenham from? The DVD we have of Adam Hills’ comedy appearance there years ago! I started reciting, to myself, every joke I remembered from his performance.

Then I ran out.

I tried dragging myself back from the brink of dissociation—remember Adam’s an amputee too; it’s funny we grew up a few streets away from each other; but I’m a lot older; I wonder if he remembers Rail Motors? The train’s wheels were now singing ‘Pakenham, Pakenham, Pakenham’ to the beat of the tracks.

Still spinning.

I reassured myself—it’s OK, you just have to survive till you get to Southern Cross; it’ll end; you’ll be right; you know why it’s happening; it doesn’t really matter if you throw up in a train carriage.

At last we arrived. I got off the train. I breathed. I sat for a moment until my legs steadied.

I’d survived another memory. I got on a coach to Tullamarine Airport, feeling as right as rain. I wasn’t scared of what had happened. It wasn’t fun and I didn’t go looking for it—it’s just what’s in a memory.