Memory is a very weird thing. We certainly do not understand exactly how it works, not even sure how many “types” of memory we have –– long-term, short-term, facial, concept, color….
We are all surprised, more and more as we age, at the memories that pop back into our minds that have lain dormant for long periods of time. In some cases that’s a good thing; time passing dulling some of the great stuff. In some cases not so good: selective proactive amnesia working on the stuff we’d rather not recall, sometimes failing most unpleasantly after a long hiatus.
We may not be absolutely sure we haven’t had a certain memory for quite a while, teasing us like déjà vu does, but we can be sure about some others. How many memories can we actually have? There must be a finite number, somewhat different from person to person, but what can that number be? Consider just your vocabulary. Every noun we know comes with at least one and often many more memories as to its meaning, let alone any associations we have to the word that are ours alone. And the verbs, adjectives and adverbs…gerunds? And that’s just our words. Sounds, music; sights, color; smell, perfumes; … And just the other day…
I was lighting a cigar and the wooden match I was using flared up for some reason and gave off a fragrance like caps. You remember caps, right? The 1/2-inch wide red paper ribbon with a small disc of black fun powder centered every 1/2-inch or so on the ribbon? They came in rolls of 50 or so discs and you slipped a roll into your cowboy pistol and blasted away at your friends welding the fun of never-ending gunfights to the smell of black powder.
While I have encountered gun powder smoke often, it was the flaring match with which I lighted my cigar that touched off just the right combination of sensors to send me back in my memory more than 50 years, not to the epic battles for possession of a blanket covered fort or grassy promontory but to a memory I am positive I’ve not entertained in all that time. Rocket poppers.
They were 2 1/2-inches long polyethelene models of spaceships that incorporated a steel nose-cone tip that transferred energy when it struck the street to a flat plate in the body of the rocket on which was placed a single torn off cap. You threw the rocket into the air and the aerodynamic design insured that it would hit nose-cone first every time, popping the cap. The higher you threw the rocket, the more energy available to detonate the cap when it hit the street – and so, of course, we jammed more and more caps into our rockets for larger and larger explosions (well, pops).
The flaring match at my cigar brought back all those memories: the type of plastic of which the rockets were made, its color (mine was a light red), the straining to throw the rocket ever higher, the louder and louder pops as greater cap payloads were sent aloft, the bright sun causing us to (dangerously!) lose sight of the thrown rockets, the guys standing around throwing one rocket at a time – than all at once. And the smell of gunpowder.
Well over half a century ago and the memories as fresh and sharp as if they were made three days ago.
Why and how does memory operate? And how many memories can each one of us possible have?