The Link Between Memory and Place

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

\r\n\r\n

Siri Hustvedt: Well, this is a very \r\ninteresting thing and\r\nthis is based on, in some way, introspection of my own, thinking about \r\nthe\r\ncharacter of my own memories.  But\r\nthis idea of loci and place, that goes way back. It goes... certainly \r\nCicero\r\nhad this notion that in order to remember things, they have to be \r\nplaced, and\r\nmemory systems would often use a house. \r\nSay you need to memorize a speech. \r\nAnd what the technique would mean is you would give yourself a \r\nspatial\r\nlocation and usually a house.  You\r\nwould walk through it as you give the speech, so you would assign \r\nvarious parts\r\nof the speech to different rooms, and this seems to help keep the words \r\ninside\r\nyou. 

\r\n\r\n

I have found that all of my memories seem to need a\r\n place\r\nand that a good part of what we think of as explicit memory has to do \r\nwith\r\nlocation. So for example, it is not that when you started going to grade\r\nschool, say you went to the same school, that you remember every day of \r\nyour\r\ngrade school experience. What you are remembering is the site of those\r\nexperiences.  Some of them explicit\r\nand many of them completely buried or forgotten. 

\r\n\r\n

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

\r\n\r\n

Only a few years ago, I've carried this memory of\r\nhumiliation around with me my whole life. \r\nOnly a couple of years ago I recognized that it couldn't have \r\ntaken\r\nplace in that living room because that house had not been built.  What had happened was that in order to\r\npreserve the memory, I replaced one house with another.  My\r\n aunt's second house, the one built\r\nafter that I do remember vividly. 

\r\n\r\n

I think this tells us something about the nature of\r\nmemory.  First of all, that it's\r\nshifting.  There are no fixed\r\noriginal memories that we can actually get ahold of, and that place is \r\nsomehow\r\nvital to the retention of those memories; even if we need an artificial \r\nhouse\r\nto put it in.

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

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