Have you ever stopped to consider what your thoughts and memories look like when they play inside your head? I’m not talking here about what you remember, rather, about how you see memories from yesterday, last week or ten years ago.
I had been sorting some photos in order to select the ones I wanted to place into a scrapbook album. A bit of a drag, really; I am hardly a minimalist when it comes to taking pictures. So I always have piles of stuff to go through, from crisp, expansive scenes, to tacky poses and cheesy group shots. However, many of my favourite pictures, the ones which tend to make it to my ‘save’ file, are those which zoom in on the details. Little close ups of a half finished lunch, a crack in a wall, of shoes on a pavement…these images instantly take me back in time, evoking rich memories of the sights, smells and sounds of a place. It is these photos that often end up in my scrapbook albums, connected with a handful of colourful headings and captions.
And when I think of what my memories look like inside my head, they look like just that. Like my scrapbooks.
I don’t know about you, but my thoughts don’t usually play like a movie. They are more like a series of still life vignettes; snapshots of moments in time or flashes of an idea. SNAP! Refocus. SNAP! Refocus. SNAP! And, what is weird, is that sometimes a most random image can epitomize the whole experience. Let me give you an example.
A few years ago I packed my bags and took a short solo trip Nepal. I spent five days trekking through some of the most amazing scenery on earth, meeting colourful characters and finding plenty to hold my attention: sun rising over snow covered peaks, blue painted houses, icicles glistening over a stream… The more I think, the more scenes I can recall, their details weaving together into a lovely story in my mind’s eye. But get this: the picture which is the starting point, the very first thing I think of when I think ‘Nepal’? Well, it’s an image of a softdrink bottle holding a bunch of plastic flowers. (Yep, just like the photo heading this post, except that I never remembered the noodle box.)
Seriously. Why? Why THAT image? Now, I KNOW that this particular bottle stood on a table at which I once sat, and that the table was in a room in a guesthouse, and that the guest house was near the top of a mighty high mountain which I had just spent seven hours climbing. But strain as much as I can, I can’t visualise a single other image which definitely ties in with what happened that day. And yet I know what happened, and I remember the day well.
In this roundabout way I had came to realise that I think with words and vague phrases, as well as with those still life images. A quick bit of family interrogation interspersed with (arguably sloppy) online research suggests that I am not alone. But nor am I representative of the whole. Apparently some people think purely in ever moving pictures, while others claim to think entirely in words.
As a teacher, I’ve known for a while that people have different learning styles, some finding it easier to learn visually, while others need to hear information or participate in some sort of kinaesthetic act of ‘doing’ to facilitate the storage of knowledge into long term memory. I also understand that individual differences affect our interests and what we tune into in the first place. Quite naively though, I never actually thought that the ‘viewing’ of that stored knowledge, the actual business of ‘remembering’ might also look differently to people.
I am fascinated. If a bunch of different people witnessed a dramatic event, they would see it from different perspectives and notice different details. I get that. Afterwards, their heads will be buzzing as they replay the event over and over again in their mind. But for one person those ‘reeling thoughts’ will look like a Hollywood block buster, replete with technicolour and special effects. For another, it may be more like looking at a graphic novel. And for someone else still, the memories may appear as a running script:
[Exit, stage left]
Is there a link between this and imagination? Artistic talent? Post traumatic stress disorder?
I think I’ve got to go and do some more thinking.