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The Forgotten Side of Memory

Photography by Christina Bryson

Written by Kahlie Colwell

Pause a moment and imagine your life without memory. Perhaps it goes something like this: to begin with, you do not recognize your surroundings. Determining your location is impossible because you cannot recollect how you arrived there. Furthermore, you are unable to seek assistance from friends because you do not know who your friends are. Did you ever even have any? Desperate, you turn to the stranger next to you, hoping he might direct you. But when you open your mouth, nothing comes out. You have forgotten how to speak. Of course, directions are irrelevant anyway because you cannot remember the address of your home. Essentially you are stranded. However, suppose you wander around and miraculously find your home. Even now, you have a serious dilemma. Without your memory, it is impossible for you to identify the home in front of you as your own.

Get the picture? Without our memories, we are helpless — unable to recall anything from the smallest most insignificant piece of information, to the largest most life-defining one. When speaking on the importance of memory, Biola psychology professor Dr. Stacy Eltiti states that a person without memory cannot hope to live any semblance of a functional life.

“Without it,” she says, “you are stuck in time, unable to grow, learn, or build relationships.”

Yet memory is easily taken for granted, probably because we make memories so often that we do not even realize we are doing it. But if you stop for just a moment and consider your life without memory, you quickly realize that it is invaluable. In fact, you might say that memory is the very foundation of normal life. So what is this function we call memory?

Emotions Impact Memories

According to Biola psychology professor Dr. John Williams, when the average person considers memory, he is thinking of what psychologists call long-term memory. Williams describes long-term memory as those past experiences, facts and skills that we never forget.

Ashish Ranpura, a writer for the website Brain Connection, reports in his article “How We Remember, Why We Forget” that our brains store long-term memories through one of three methods: repetition, conscientious effort and emotional connection. Williams emphasizes the last method: emotional connection. He states that the part of our brains that stores our memories, called the hippocampus, is located next to the part of our brains that controls our emotions, called the amygdala.

“When we are experiencing a memory,” Williams explains, “the amygdala is active as well as the hippocampus.”

This suggests that these two parts of the brain work together in helping us recall memories. We not only see the memories in our mind, but we also experience the emotions that accompany those memories. In other words, memories and emotions go hand in hand with one another.

Emotions are incredibly powerful and often affect our actions, whether we realize it or not. It may not be such a shock then to realize that our memories, with their emotions attached, impact our future actions.

The Active Role of Memory

“Our long-term memory is always affecting us,” Williams states. “The way we respond in a situation depends on long-term memory.”

For example, suppose you made a joke that greatly offended your friend. As you anxiously approach your friend to apologize, you can be sure that you will think twice before using that joke again. Thus, one role our memories play is allowing us to learn from past mistakes.

From a Biblical standpoint, we are people contaminated by sin who constantly make mistakes. Many times our actions harm others around us. To help spur us toward better relationships with others, God has gifted us with memory, which serves to prevent us from twice making those mistakes that hurt people. Memory is key to building up his body of believers.

Eltiti further expanded on Williams’s point that memories guide our actions. She explains that our past experiences influence how we perceive our circumstances and our surroundings. Basically, if your current situation causes you to recall a happy memory, you will perceive your situation in a more positive light. The same is true of those situations that cause you to remember unhappy memories. Your assessment of that situation will be negative.

It is this influence due to memories that allows us to feel empathy toward one another. For example, if you are able to recall the excruciating pain of losing a loved one, you are significantly better equipped to understand when someone else endures loss as well. On a brighter side, this is why rejoice with new believers when they come to a saving faith in Christ. We understand the feelings of joy and relief they are experiencing because we recall our own conversion. Memory allows us to relate to one another through the sharing of common experiences.

Memory Fundamental to Relationships

It is this critical involvement in relationships, Eltiti argues, that makes memory so important. As we have seen, memory teaches us how to best interact and relate to one another. It is because of memory that we remember a family member’s birthday and celebrate with them. And it is because of memory that we understand another’s insecurities and how those affect them. Memory is at the root of why you and your friend enjoy meeting together every week to watch your favorite television show. Things like these are what cause our relationships with other people to develop and deepen.

Certainly our relationships with others are one of the most important — if not the most important — aspect of our lives. Our Creator designed us to be in communion with others like us. But as Eltiti is quick to point out, God created us to be in a relationship with him. And this is the most important relationship we will ever have. In light of this, it is no accident God gave us memory, with the many roles it plays in allowing us to build relationships.

“In the Bible, we are called to remember,” Eltiti says. With our memories, we can remember all that the Bible has to say about who God is and worship his greatness. Of even greater significance, we can recall what God has done for us on the cross and derive peace from this incomparable demonstration of his love. When we take time in our lives to remember who God really is and what he has done for us, we are able to offer him authentic praise as well as reaffirm our trust in him.

It is good to remember for other reasons as well. It is good to remember your friend’s favorite kind of ice cream so that you can surprise her when she is having a bad day. And it is good to recall the pain of a past trial and offer hope to the person now enduring it. Memory is a divine gift that enables us to support one another and enjoy fellowship. However, investing in people takes time — a lot of it. Life today is fast-paced, cluttered with deadlines, expectations and phone calls. Spare time is a rarity. And if we are honest with ourselves, many of us would agree that we often feel as though we do not have the time to develop meaningful relationships with others. On some days, the very suggestions of celebrating with a friend, grieving with a loved one or spending quiet time to reflect on the Lord are enough to cause us an emotional breakdown. But perhaps we might begin to achieve a sense of balance if we accepted our busy lives while refusing to relinquish relationships as a priority.

Certainly our education and our jobs are important, but when asked to share wisdom with Biola students navigating their way through college, Eltiti suggests, “Make the most of your relationships at school.”

This is advice that is applicable at any stage of our life, college and beyond. Nowadays, it is all but impossible to escape feeling busy. There will never be a “right” time to develop relationships. Yet rather than remember our accomplishments, we more often recall our relationships. They are what bring meaning to life. Don’t forget that.

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