How does memory work?
One of the common writing challenges that people often encounter has to do with memory.
Whether you’re writing about your personal memories, or wanting to draw on the memories of other people, or show how memory is shaping the actions and decisions of your characters, memory can be a fairly elusive and hard to describe concept.
The science of memory
Whatever the writing project that you’re tackling, if you’re wanting to write about memory then a good starting point is to understand how memory works.
At a basic level, the concept of memory describes how your brain encodes, stores, and retrieves information.
Memory is a crucial human function – our memories instinctively influence future actions.
There’s different types of memory. Different types of information and experiences are stored in different ways. You’ll hear people talking about short-term memory, long-term memory, and sensory memory. It’s worth doing some reading about memory as a function, so you can map what you’re writing about into some of the physiology that sits behind our memory function.
How to write about memories
What the research tells us is that the more emotionally charged an event or experience is, the better that it’s remembered. Intuitively, that makes sense – when you reflect on past events and past experiences, the things that stand out are the ones with the biggest emotional impact. Intense moments of happiness, intense moments of sadness, intense moments of fear, intense moments of embarrassment.
This phenomenon is known as the memory enhancement effect. The emotions that you experience at the time are creating little red flags that are marking these memories as significant and important and worth holding on to.
When you’re writing about memories, this is why it’s important that you’re really tapping into the emotions that surround that event or experience.
If you’re sharing one of your memories, what you need to convey are the emotions that you experienced at the moment that you’re reflecting on. You need to show your reader why that moment had such an intense impact on you.
If you’re writing about how the memories of one of your characters has shaped their future actions, you need to convey the emotions that surrounded the original memory – what made that moment such a pivotal turning point for this character?
You can also focus on the emotional experience to explain why your characters may have processed differently the memories of a shared experience. If character A felt embarrassment during experience X, then they will remember X completely differently to character B who felt sexual arousal during experience X. They shared the experience but they remember it completely differently – their past memory shapes their future actions in different ways because the memory itself is different.
This is an example of where it’s really useful to map out the narrative arc of your story and your characters. Who are these people? How did they get here? What is motivating their actions? How do they feel about each other? How do they feel about themselves?
Memory is a fascinating area of research. A bit of background reading on the subject can really help to enhance the impact and authenticity of your writing.