Last night I had the honor of introducing my friend Dave at the launch of his latest book, THE BRAIN: THE STORY OF YOU, which is released in conjunction with his upcoming 6-part PBS series, “The Brain with David Eagleman.” For the past twenty years, Dave has dedicated much of his scientific research on the brain to quirks of perception–vision, time, synesthesia, memory, etc.–and how they translate to our understanding of reality and ourselves.
Of all the ways that humans express their unique being, access to memories seems to me to be the most essential. Who would “you” be if you lost those implicit moments of your personal history: the moments that bring you retrospective joy, the experiences that connect (or disconnect) you with others, those developmental trials-and-errors that chiseled your particular sets of skills and fears and standards and more? We see this, of course, in patients with Alzheimers and dementia. (My paternal grandmother lost most of her memories in a gradual release; we didn’t love her any less, but at the end, she was unrecognizable from her vibrant earlier self.)
Disinterring memories from our tangled neural networks seems to become more difficult as we age, demented or not. Prompts such as words, pictures, or textures can certainly elicit memories, but have you ever encountered a scent that produced a memory with sudden and total recall, often exceptionally rich with emotional detail? That’s because olfactory memories are stored differently in the brain than other memories, and can serve as a sort of Proustian time machine.
I tried it on my third-grade WITS students today. Using an excerpt (to shield them from the naughty parts) of Joe Brainard’s book-length poem “I Remember” as an anchor text, and a lesson on using detail, I gave them plastic bags filled with common odiferous items: coffee beans, orange zest, peppermints, fresh-cut grass, cinnamon, a cotton ball soaked with rubbing alcohol, mulch, and pencil shavings. I asked them to close their eyes and breathe in each scent, allowing their minds to travel through those wormholes of memory. Skeptical at first, they soon grew very quiet and reflective, and the only sounds in the room were the opening of the ziplock bags and their pencils moving on paper.
Some of their poems were very moving. This one, by a little boy named Leighton, I will remember for a long time:
I remember trying to help my mom make her coffee, and it didn’t taste as good.
I remember drinking my dad’s margarita, thinking it was lemonade.
I remember sharpening my pencil, and the lead curling out.
I remember burying a flag under the grass in my back yard.
I remember completely changing my kitchen, seeing little pieces of wood floating in the air.
I remember driving to Baton Rouge, and being bored for hours and hours.
I remember looking at third graders and thinking how hard third grade must be.
I remember when I was in Pre-K and didn’t even know capital letters existed.
I remember falling from a tree and feeling nothing while I was in the air.
I remember catching an enormous flounder when I wasn’t paying attention to my line.
I remember seeing a bug (probably harmless) and running away fast for no reason.
I remember having a mint chocolate chip shake, and wishing I had more when it was gone.