The very earliest memory I have is one of youthful vandalism.
I’m young, old enough to grip a rock in my wee fist. I can see a car driving past and I do what instinct tells me. I remember rearing back and throwing the stone at the car.
I also remember my Mom’s reaction. She jumped up, grabbed me, yelled and swatted my behind.
I asked her about it years later, and she doesn’t remember it at all. I gather it was just one example of my, shall we say, exuberance, at that young age. It was small potatoes for her.
But it was a big deal for me. She recalls other things, like me trying to jump into some falls at Yellowstone National Park. I have no recollection of that whatsoever.
The rock incident occurred a year or so later in life than my failed Yellowstone expedition and I figured that was because my brain, such as it is, had developed enough to start saving memories.
I asked my son his earliest memory a couple of years ago and he told me it was something impossible, from the first two months of his life. But he recalled it perfectly.
Here’s why: He saw the tape. We bought a video camera soon after he was born and started running tape, recording burps and coos and assorted hijinks.
Here’s the thing: He recalls other bits of his life, when his own memories should override everything, more strongly than others because they were reinforced by video evidence. He recalls things from my perspective, from behind the camera, better than he does from his own.
So it’s no surprise: media shapes what we remember. And now, according to an article in this month’s Science Magazine, the Internet not only shapes what we remember, but the actual mental mechanism we use to remember. Folks taught information kept on a computer that is due to be erased recall things better than those told the computer file will be preserved, forever at their fingertips.
It’s a scary thing, especially in this age of Photoshop and partisan, Wiki-fiable and rewritable media. If our media-formed memories prove stronger than those formed by natural experience, we need to be pretty careful guardians of how those memories get written.