Jumbled Thoughts on Memory and Recognition

One of the things I like most about reading is that books often present you with ideas that are so common and so obvious, but still have never crossed your mind. It’s usually a line or a snippet of dialogue — something so casual that the author may not have even been thinking too much about it when they included it in the book. But because the author’s perspective is different from the reader’s perspective, it becomes revolutionary to the reader.

I’ve just started reading Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. It’s a long time coming… I’ve always loved the story, I’ve just never been very good with reading older English (I know, what an excuse, right?). But I’m currently going through the (embarrassingly long) list of classic books that I haven’t read. And I quickly had one of those revolutionary moments, fairly early on in the book as Victor speaks of the passing of his mother:

“It is so long before the mind can persuade itself that she whom we saw every day and whose very existence appeared a part of our own can have departed forever—that the brightness of a beloved eye can have been extinguished and the sound of a voice so familiar and dear to the ear can be hushed, never more to be heard.”

I had never thought about the fact that when someone dies, I may never hear their voice again. Sure, if we happened to capture a moment on video, we’ll have the digital interpretation of someone’s voice, but it’s never quite the same.

It made me think about how our minds summarize the people around us. When I look back on memories of people who have passed or who I may never see again, I see a picture of them in my mind’s eye, unchanged in all the years since I last saw them. It’s like my mind pulls out a photo album and starts flipping through various images. It may not even be specific, factual images — but my mind knows the person’s face, and all its expressions. Sight is at the forefront of our attention (which is ironic since it’s at the back of our brains), and so is the first sense that we use to make connections.

But it is rare that I reminisce about someone and try to hear their voice in my head. When it occurs to me, I can usually remember what they sounded like, but it’s not my first instinct to connect their person with their voice. Why is that? If we experience a person with all five senses, why do we so often limit our memory of them to just one? And why is it that the sense that we have more access to (sight) gets more precedence over a sense that is harder to contain? I mean, a person’s voice is a huge part of who they are, but it always seems to come secondary to their appearance.

Well, not always. I remember watching the Anne of Green Gables miniseries as a kid, and when I watched the later bits, when Anne had grown up, I remember thinking how much her voice had changed. It didn’t sound like Anne any more. Now, obviously, a person’s voice naturally changes as they age, so it’s not that it wasn’t forseeable… but as a kid, I could ‘t wrap my brain around the idea that it was the same person. It didn’t matter that she looked the same — I remember actually wondering if they had found a new actor (as if they could replace Megan Follows).

I think I need to be a little more intentional in using all my senses — not just visual and auditory — to remember the people I interact with. There was a woman I knew growing up whose husband would often go away on business trips. He smoked a pipe, and when he was away, she, who was not a smoker herself, would smoke the pipe just so she could have his smell. I always thought that was so endearing.

Though it is the more ephemeral attributes that attach us to an individual, it is the physical attributes that allow us to piece them together in our mind. So why not see them as a whole, instead of a snapshot of who they are? Instead of just defaulting to visual recognition, let’s try to pay attention to every aspect of our surroundings.

Just some thoughts. Not remotely scientifically accurate, I’m sure, but I thought I’d share what I’ve uncovered so far. And to think it all came from one tiny snippet in a book.

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