I was sitting in English class, first period, learning about Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It was the morning of September 11, 2001. My English teacher was hastily rushed to the hallway and came back with eyes a bit emptier than before. She was breathing a bit faster and had an obvious vacant look on her face — the kind that still manages to tell you that something isn’t right. The events that occurred on 9/11 are the equivalent of our generation’s Challenger tragedy or JFK assassination — memories that are forever imprinted on and are rusting somewhere in our neural machinery.
Most of us know where we were and what we were doing on those dates if we experienced them firsthand. This quick post, however, isn’t about the tragic events surrounding 9/11 per se; it’s about how finicky our memories actually are when we try to remember salient events after years or even decades. The link above nicely talks about some of the new research being done to highlight not just how easily we misremember stuff; but it specifically highlights how much we even misremember events that are strongly colored in with emotion. To be fair, memory is astonishing in its capacity: one recent study found that people can remember thousands of images and retain the details of these images hours after having experienced them. But, despite being the thing that threads and unifies our overall sense of being, it has plenty of quirks that reveal something deeper about how memory works.
I went back to my elementary school last year to talk to some familiar faces and, much to my surprise, dismay, and even disbelief, I learned that there was no English class taught during first period in the Fall semester of 2001. I, too, had misremembered where I was and what I was doing on 9/11 by a long shot. FML. Forgive Memory’s Laziness.