‘Making’ Memories

My, don’t we love alliterative phrases. The pleasing power of alliteration has been harnessed, for good or for ill, by poets, dramatists, novelists, politicians, marketing and advertising industries and the rest since the year dot.

When it comes to the words we use to frame and communicate our own personal and internal world, the catchy resonance of an expression which has entered into general usage can lead to an automatic assumption that it has some kind of truth and authority. But it can be a bad idea to let a cute alliterative phrase become a guiding principle just because it trips off the tongue.

And so we come to the encouragement to ‘make memories’. This is how a cheery well-wisher might respond to your plans for a celebration, a holiday, an outing, anything really, particularly if it involves other people and lots of opportunities for online sharing. It’s hard not to think that if your plans and expectations don’t materialise, if you don’t keep creating and shaping unforgettable experiences you are failing in the essential skill of ‘making memories’.

Remember this about memory

There are lots of faulty assumptions here. Memory isn’t something we can create. It isn’t under our control. This powerful and complex phenomenon is operated by the hippocampus, the part of our brain which is involved with the storage and retrieval of memory.

Short-term, long-term, working, sensory, false, impaired, partial are just some of the categories of memory which are the subjects of scientific research. In the usual way of things, we have no idea what we will remember or how we will remember it — if at all. And heaven knows, we forget stuff we want to remember and remember stuff we would rather forget.

One of the assumptions implied in the encouragement to make memories is that all your memories will be good ones. Naturally this is what we hope, but experience tells us that events don’t always pan out as we would like. That’s life. But the more we think that it is our responsibility to make good memories, the more we are likely to feel a sense of personal failure when something we have arranged or been part of doesn’t have the feelgood effect which guarantees fond recollections for years to come.

I don’t recollect it that way

Another assumption is that everyone involved will have a similarly lovely memory of an event. However, individuals remember and interpret the same occasion differently.

Our recollections and interpretations are coloured by numerous aspects of our particular selves. All our life experiences and personality traits shape how we respond to our world. You know what it’s like when you get a new car, say, and suddenly the roads are teeming with that very model, practically overnight! We notice and respond to things with which are foremost in our minds at the time. The most determined ‘memory maker’ among us can’t change that.

Don’t miss it while it’s happening

In trying to ‘make memories’ the focus shifts from enjoying or relishing or savouring the moment to thinking about how it will live on and be viewed in the future. This can mean relinquishing the present and missing the real experience. Filming a live performance on your phone could mean that you miss some of the characteristics which make it unique — the connection between the performer and the audience, the sense of communal involvement, the sights and smells and peripheral sounds which go to create its particular essence.

Memory isn’t static. It can change with time. The way you see an event might be challenged or altered by, for example, something aspect of it that you suddenly remember, or by something that is said, or by your own changing awareness. This can be an enriching experience. You might have a strong, fixed recollection of someone being angry, and than later on realise that the person wasn’t angry, but was afraid, or sad. Or you can come across incontrovertible evidence that, for example, someone you remember being absent from a certain event was in fact there. Or vice versa.

‘Making memories’ is just a phrase, but the level of control and responsibility it implies presents life as a project which can be shaped to our needs. We could take the pressure of ourselves and others by using different words. Old-school expressions like ‘have a good time’ or ‘I’m looking forward to seeing so-and-so or doing such-and-such’ may be a little anodyne, but they don’t impinge.

Memories are made of what you make of them

A lovely reminder of the shape-shifting nature of memory and the futility of thinking we can control it comes from the 1958 film Gigi, set in Paris. The song, I Remember It Well, a Lerner and Loewe composition, is sung by Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold. They are a couple, old flames from way back, who meet later on in life and reminisce about their last rendezvous.

Well, their memories are so different you wonder if they were both at the same event. Chevalier launches into the account of what he remembers, and Gingold interrupts him at every point with a different version of the evening. It was a Friday — or a Monday — in April — or June. They dined with friends — or they dined alone. What about the singer who entertained them? He was a tenor — or maybe a baritone. The music was Russian — or Spanish. And how did they get home? Did they take a carriage, or did they walk? And so on.

It really doesn’t matter. The song continues to delight audiences with its teasing, affectionate tone and its evocation of love and romance. You might think that nowadays such conflicting versions could be sorted out. After all, when we ‘make memories’ we can record the truth of an event with some well-chosen photos and suitable posts on social media. We can’t, of course, not exactly — the version we choose to present is carefully edited and framed by our own intentions.

But it’s not just that. To demand verification of concrete details would be to take a sledgehammer to such a charming song. It would destroy the essence of this gentle, tender, amusing presentation of the nature of nostalgia and memory whose warmth and tenderness envelop us. In the end what prevails is emotional reality.

And that is more powerful than a few ‘I made the memory’, nailed-it selfies, n’est ce pas?

How to Speak With Authority and Impact

How Your Personal Values Affect Your Wellbeing

How To Develop An Assertive Communication Style