The Unbearable Randomness of Memory

Over 20 years ago, I got in my car and drove a short distance from Baltimore to Washington, DC to meet the person I was in love with at the time. I was going to meet him in the hotel where he was staying, while doing research for a book. I went to the hotel. He was there waiting for me, in the lobby. He was sitting in a comfortable club chair, in a blue jacket, illuminated under a reading lamp.  He was reading a newspaper, with his sockless foot jiggling restlessly in his loafer, one leg draped jauntily over the other. I happily watched him for several seconds before he saw me. That’s it. Nothing exceptional happened.


Why do I share such a trivial and meaningless moment? More to the point, why do I remember it?

We did more intimate things and shared more, the two of us, than a glance across a lobby or a sockless foot jiggling in a loafer, spied from afar. Why these fleeting seconds laid down roots, I haven’t a clue.

The memory persists with maddeningly random precision. It’s not an example of a poor memory so much as a mysteriously obdurate one.

Others tell me that they have similarly tessellated “relationship archives." They recall relationships in randomly-framed snapshots. They (and I) can remember all the usual, clearly-marked relationship trailheads (the first and last of this or that), and the more obvious, event-driven, highly charged, or otherwise significant moments in between.

Then there are moments like this one, that mean nothing but that we spend years recalling.

The least poetic explanation for the persistence of the random relationship memory is that our brains just screw up. As Mark Twain criticized James Fenimore Cooper’s writing, he chooses not the correct word, but the word standing right next to it.  It may be the same with memory. “Autobiographical memory,” which is a subset of “explicit” or “declarative” long-term memory, is a kluge, the engineering term for a makeshift solution or an inelegant design. That’s Gary Marcus’ argument in his book, Kluge.

Marcus argues that memory shows how ill-adapted and imperfect our brains are. Like a remodeled house, we can only evolve by adapting what we started with. We can add a bathroom to the original structure, but there are limits to the elegance of human memory given that evolution is a palimpsest of new writing over so many layers of old.

Maybe this moment in the hotel lobby has no richer symbolism or soulful luminosity than any other. I remember it for no better reason than I remember the lyrics to ABBA’s first album but not the Periodic Table, or something else that might be valuable—or at least not embarrassing—to me.

Other neuroscientists explain that memories do a kind of work, as MIT neurobiologist Matt Wilson summarizes in an interview. “We think of memory as a record of our experience,” he says. “But the idea is not just to store information. It’s to store relevant information.”  If so, I wonder what relevance this moment could possibly be performing; what truth such a stubbornly random memory discloses. Wilson continues: “[The idea is] to use our experience to guide future behavior…. The speculation is that we process memory in order to solve problems. And things we should learn from, things that are particularly important or that have strong emotions tied to them, may be things that are going to be important in the future.”

I like this idea. Since I know nothing about neuroscience, the poet in me wants to believe that a shard of a moment so vividly called to mind encrypts vital knowledge and “relevance” that I can’t decipher, but that is there for me to understand, if only I could crack the code.

It has the feel of an epiphany, the sudden and unexpected realization of a great truth. James Joyce was the first to apply this theological concept to everyday life, the moment when everything is illuminated through an otherwise ordinary event.

The equivalent to an epiphany in the science of memory might be the Flashbulb Memory. Apparently, this is a somewhat contested idea in the study of memory, first coined in 1977. It refers to our intense, highly-detailed recall for moments when we learned of cataclysmic big events, such as the JFK assassination or 9/11.

While my memory has the intensity of the flashbulb photo, it lacks a triggering event. It wasn’t the last normal moment before 9/11, or an extremely micro-9/11 crisis in my personal life.  No, as I recall (the rest of the evening isn’t remembered much at all) we caught a cab and had dinner. He told me about an interview he’d done, pulling out a small, spiral-bound book from his back pocket, filled with chicken-scratch notes, to emphasize his point. We had an unexceptional evening.

Relationships of any kind have many thousands of such moments.

The best I can speculate is that if it does any work at all, it is perhaps to etch in deep memory the cherished banality and ephemera of our ties to one another. It’s to remind me of how to be ordinarily alive, observant, and attuned with another human in unremarkable times.  

The very thing that is most forgettable in a relationship is maybe the most precious and important to remember.  Not our life together in extremis but in media res.

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