The Link Between Memory and Place

Studying a humiliating memory from her own childhood convinced the author that we “place” what we remember, and vice versa.
  • Transcript


Question: Does your claim that “explicit memories thrive on place” mean that non-location-based memories tend to fade?

Siri Hustvedt: Well, this is a very interesting thing and this is based on, in some way, introspection of my own, thinking about the character of my own memories.  But this idea of loci and place, that goes way back. It goes... certainly Cicero had this notion that in order to remember things, they have to be placed, and memory systems would often use a house.  Say you need to memorize a speech.  And what the technique would mean is you would give yourself a spatial location and usually a house.  You would walk through it as you give the speech, so you would assign various parts of the speech to different rooms, and this seems to help keep the words inside you. 

I have found that all of my memories seem to need a place and that a good part of what we think of as explicit memory has to do with location. So for example, it is not that when you started going to grade school, say you went to the same school, that you remember every day of your grade school experience. What you are remembering is the site of those experiences.  Some of them explicit and many of them completely buried or forgotten. 

I find that I need to locate my memories.  There was one illustration that I gave in the book that interested me.  It was a failure of my own memory, an error.  And this is what it was.  When I was four years old, I was in Norway with my mother and sister.  We were at my aunt's house sitting around the table, having a meal.  I remember—I can see the living room perfectly in my mind.  My cousin, my older cousin, Vivica, begins to cry.  I love this because—she is older than she is still older than I am—and so I felt bad, I didn't know why she was crying.  I pushed myself off the chair, and I remember my feet were dangling, so I had to drop.  Went around and patted my cousin on her arm to comfort her.  And all the grown ups burst into laughter and I was so angry and humiliated by that laughter.  Of course no one meant any harm, but I was four. 

Only a few years ago, I've carried this memory of humiliation around with me my whole life.  Only a couple of years ago I recognized that it couldn't have taken place in that living room because that house had not been built.  What had happened was that in order to preserve the memory, I replaced one house with another.  My aunt's second house, the one built after that I do remember vividly. 

I think this tells us something about the nature of memory.  First of all, that it's shifting.  There are no fixed original memories that we can actually get ahold of, and that place is somehow vital to the retention of those memories; even if we need an artificial house to put it in.