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Memory as an Array of Locked Doors

January 2, 2021

2 min read

We remember the beginnings and ends of things best. The meaning I was compelled by to write in this moment belongs to this moment, and not the year 2020, or its events. Yet, by bookending 2020, it becomes a disproportionately important part of it. That's nothing exceptional, just the strange way our brains construct memory and meaning, I suppose.1

Intuitively, we think of memory as a flowing tapestry of experience, fading away uniformly with time. Certain tiles may shine brighter than the rest and last longer, but with time it too will lose its vibrancy.

The true nature of memory, though, is not so intuitive. We do not remember or forget past experiences uniformly: we remember certain details from our childhood vividly -- perhaps a certain friend, or family gathering -- and forget nearly everything else. That's not only because these moments were more meaningful when they happened, though. You may remember one childhood friend but not another who you were equally close with. When you hear that the forgotten friend is in your town years later, though, the memories come flooding back, and you wonder how you ever forgot about them in the first place.

Memory is not a flowing tapestry, smoothly and unceasingly rolling into the fog of the past. Rather, it is a collection of locked doors that cover the vast space of the mind, behind which lie recreations of experiences potentially as vivid as when they first happened. These doors are unlocked by the keys of your current experiences, which you hold on a keyring. Recent memories are easily accessible, because the keys of the present are always in reach. But the space on your keyring is limited, and as the present passes by and recedes into the past, you must select keys to discard. Thus, rather than simply fading away, the vast majority of memories remain alive but latent, hidden and inaccessible.

When your present collides with elements of the past, say when visiting your hometown or listening to a childhood favorite song, you're once again supplied with keys to memories otherwise forgotten.

To me, journal entries are special because they are the most powerful kind of key I've learned to create. Perhaps when I am older I will appreciate the people I am around now as even more powerful keys; but for now I relish the meaning in the words on pages physical and digital, words that unlock not one but scores of doors with each paragraph, imagery and intricacies that cause trapdoors and windows within doored rooms to unfold, currents of vitality or misery or purpose engulfing my visiting body and whisking me away.

We think of memory as a blanket draped over you, comforting or oppressive as it maybe; but with the right approach, it can just as easily offer the thrill and joy of adventurous remembrance.


  1. From my new year reflection post

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