Memory—the psychological process of acquiring, storing, retaining, and later retrieving information. Simple, eh? Get it, bank it, keep in layered in millions of neurons, and make it slide down from your brain to your tongue in a split second. That works if you’re thirty and have a healthy brain. It bogs if your brain is eighty.
In his masterwork, “Sapiens—A Brief History Of Humankind,” Yuval Noah Harari, charted the fascinating path memory takes in the human brain. “For millions of years people stored information in a single place—their brains. Unfortunately, the human brain is not a good storage device for empire-sized databases, for three main reasons. First, its capacity is limited. Secondly, humans die, and their brains die with them. Thirdly and most importantly, the human brain has been adapted to store and process only particular kinds of information.”
The problem with memory is remembering. The challenge for the forgetful is internal, often secret, and perplexing to family, friends, foes, and brain first-responders. It should also be an ethical mandate, not for the forgetful person, but for those who write about memory. If we’re going to write about it, we should check off the ethical norms, as we type, better yet, before we type.
Is there a difference between forgetting and misremembering? Forgetting might be described as looking for something lost in a huge dark basement with only a small lit candle to go by. Misremembering occurs when the reliability condition is met but the accuracy condition is not. Looking at it this way forces ethical assessment—accuracy, reliability, and internality. These are ethical norms in many writing exercises, but they are essential to how we write about memory. We must be accurate, not guessing. We must be reliable, not writing on hunches and hopes. And we must write with internality in mind—our mind—not the mind of the forgetful soul we’re writing about. An internality is the long-term benefit or cost to someone that cannot remember or make good decisions because the basis for the decision is no longer available—mentally or functionally. Internality in psychology is the nonconscious mental process by which the characteristics, beliefs, feelings, or attitudes are assimilated into “the self” and adopted as “one’s own.”
The prompt for this admittedly obscure topic—memory—is a recent New York Times opinion written by Tish Harrison Warren. Her op-ed is about the author’s personal experience faced every day by millions. She describes a recent event with a loved one in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s about a woman who knows who she is, who her daughter is, who her third-grade teacher was, but not what happened a week ago or a month ago, or ten minutes ago. Ms. Warren describes it as looking through a camera coming in and out of focus. With descriptive metaphors, and carefully selected facts she meets the ethical norms of accuracy, reliability, and internality.
More often, we read about people who remember things vaguely but insist their memories, or the memories of someone they are writing about are accurate accounts. That kind of writing can charitably be described as “unclear.” Unclear whether the lie they are telling is based on accurate memory of the experienced event. In many cases, lying is a product of a faulty memory. False memories of details that were never experienced invites mnemonic outcome. Mnemonic devices can assist in memory attention. They can assist in memory retention and increase one’s ability to recall information. But not in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s. That point should be part of ethically assessing words and examples of memory retention or failure.
In her excellent op-ed, Ms. Warren carefully defines the key elements in the story about her mother. “Memory, for all of us, speaks to our inherent limitations. Forgetting is part of what it is to be human. That becomes more evident when facing Alzheimer’s. But even for those of us who not have dementia, almost all of our days have faded from view.”
Writers should take that reality to heart when we write about what people forget. We too, forget. We hold onto some memories like artists hold onto certain colors, or partisans cling to past glories. We are prone to cast nets for old memories to hold onto the past.
Robert Louis Stevinson wrote it exactly right. “I’ve got a good memory for forgetting.”
 Yuval Noah Harari. “Sapiens-A Brief History of Humankind.” Harper Perennial—Harper Collins, 2015. ISBN 978-9-09-2316II-0.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
If you have an important story you want told, you can commission me to write it for you. Learn how.