Some of the recent posts on this site have shared bits and pieces of my youth with perhaps a bit more detail than is normal, and this has resulted in a couple of people asking whether some of the memory is filled in via imagination or remembered with an uncommon amount of clarity. Given that memories are malleable and do not generally have updated timestamps to show when or if something has changed, I generally need to answer “it’s a little bit of both … I think”. For most of my life after the age of six, I can tell you a couple of things I did for just about every day right up until now. There are gaps, of course, and there are fragments of memories that I generally view as suspect. Human frailties aside, the memories that I’ve shared on this site or in person when chatting with people are as accurate as I can muster. There are, however, tools that I can use to help trigger details of memories.

An indispensable tool when I wrote about the paper boats I made as a child was a mapping application that could show a satellite overview of the area I grew up. On the map I could trace the routes I used to walk alone and with friends. This would remind me of various details and warrant a little more investigation to fill in gaps that I might have forgotten. This was certainly the case with the metal grate that blocked human access to the tunnel where the Red Hill Creek flowed under King Street. I hadn’t thought of that filthy metal barrier in decades but, when I traced the route I would send my boats, it was like being transported back in time to watch myself run alongside the shallow creek, careful for the stones and low-hanging branches, as a vessel of dubious seaworthiness made its uncontrolled journey downstream. This technique was also used to remember details about the day I almost drowned in Lake Erie, the general history of Hamilton, and details for a bunch of other posts that have not yet been completed.

What might set my memories apart from other people’s is the area of focus. I tend to pay attention to small details or very specific elements of a place or situation rather than what someone might consider the main area of focus. This is also true of movies, where I’ll observe what supporting characters are doing while others are speaking or otherwise being the centre of attention. Disney and Pixar movies are great for this kind of activity. So, because I focus on small details, it’s easier (for me) to subconsciously reassemble a memory by filling in the blanks from one day with similar details from another. This doesn’t make the memory any less real, but it does make for a rather vivid scene in the mind’s eye.

What’s odd is that this memory is not limited to just places I’ve physically experienced, but extends to books and dreams as well. I’ve been told on several occasions that this is “not normal”. Given how many times I’ve solved complex coding problems in a dream and then later implemented the same solution in real life to great success, I’ll admit that I’m quite happy to be abnormal in this regard. It does raise a question, though: how do people generally remember things?

There are a number of bad memories I’ve wished could be erased, but I’ve learned to live with them and accept that not every event in life will be a good one. Does the typical human mind generally forget entire spans of time? Do people not remember most of their school-aged childhood? If so, why do more people not keep a journal to hold onto memories for longer periods of time?

Memory is a fascinating thing. I’ve considered mine both a blessing and a curse over the years. At some point it’s bound to deteriorate, which is one of the reasons for the recent posts about the past. Hopefully it won’t happen anytime soon.