How Memory Shapes Our Consciousness

I stepped out onto the asphalt in front of our house. A sweltering day cut by a thick, balmy evening. Stars stud the sky like miniature gems, delicately displaying their wares. I lost myself in those sacred, slow moments to the lonely, beautiful sky.

I was transported. I feel like it was yesterday.

My skyward gaze re-kindled the electric fervor of unbridled childhood memories — flooding in like fire, innocence, rapture, despair.

I deposit a white trash bag in the plastic can at the curb. Like a magnet drawn toward a distant pole, my eyes slowly reconnect with the source of longing:

Strands of stars stud the Pacific sky.
Breathe in.
Breathe out.

The Germans call this sehnsucht. The Portuguese call it saudade.

Mystery. Wonder. Memory. Sadness. Hope. Death. Life.

Longing so deep it hurts.

My father and I were up late. Down by the Smith River.
Jedidiah Smith State Park.

Camping, circa 1990s.

The air hangs thick and silent, hovering above the rich, sacred soil. Redwood giants tower with their canopies hung like a thick brown sheet pointing gently upward to the coruscating embers of the night sky.

The river is clear like glass, quietly reflecting the dark and ancient glory above, gently punctuated by the fold of river bends and small, soft rapids.


I remember climbing a large boulder. Look down. Smooth river stones litter the ground like a thousand pale ghosts. Their ancient surfaces are worn from a million footsteps, and the tumbling and pounding of pure water carving its sanguine path through the wilderness. Look up.

The sky is talking.

Whispering its glorious, studded wealth to those who have the patience to deny sleep and the roaring comfort of campfire and card games at worn picnic tables crested with the ominous, tired glow of green propane lanterns.

The Milky Way floods into view—a brilliant colorful seam as clear as day. Whoever envisioned outer space as colorless hasn’t seen the night sky untarnished by the wide halo of a million artificial lights.

Everything else fades away. I soak it all in.

I can feel this moment like it was yesterday. I was taken there in an instant when I was doing probably one of the most mundane tasks on the planet: taking out the trash.

Memories carry a power with them that is hard to even formulate, let alone speak of or write about. They are intimately tied up with our emotions and lives in such ways that they connect us to a time consciously forgotten. Like strings quietly being plucked, drawing is inward to a deeper, hidden world.

Then without warning, the unconsciousness floods the conscious, the distant becomes present. Bubbling up comes deep, primal emotions.

This memory in particular made me pause and consider the very nature of memory itself. The visceral power of this childhood moment made me wonder if the memories we are creating today have the same sturdiness that our distant, formative ones seem to possess.

I have the sneaking feeling that our absorption with technology, ourselves (via social networks), and the subtle, seductive allure of our phones is hampering our ability to form the kind of concrete memories that we could be powerfully met with 10, 20, 30 years from now.

In our consumption with “capturing” every moment, we are actually missing something. THE thing.

The Roots

Unlike some today, I don’t believe that mobile photography is ruining photography. Wielding a camera is a long-standing human instrument of preserving time, history, and memory. It has enabled a whole new generation of people (myself included) to discover the world and share it with the people around us.

This is decidedly a beautiful thing.

But like all things it comes with a cost. What we gain in the ability to instantly record anything, we lose in our ability to live in the present, in the moment with real flesh-and-blood people. Because of this we often fail to cement moments in time in ways that will continue to stay with us over the long-term.

We can return to the digital imprint over and over. Filter it. Refine it. Beautifying the digital vestige into something sharp and precise that lacks many of the rich, defining characteristics of the real thing.

No human made lens can capture the level of detail, nuance, and beauty of the real world as scanned through our retinas and processed by our visual cortex.

I would argue that the physicality of shooting film with precision optics can come closer than our modern mobile companions in archiving the world in a less-destructive and immediate way.

But that is beside the point.

The point is: our obsession with capture has outstripped our ability to consume and digest memories in a transcendent and lasting way.

The Distance

There is a distance between our perception of memory and the reality of what actually happened. As Malcolm Gladwell demonstrated in the third season of Revisionist History time and again, this memory delta is unavoidably human.

As much as we want to get the past right, we can’t. Memories are warped by our desires and longings as much as they are by the ability of our brains to accurately record, archive, store, store, and retrieve details over long swaths of time.

Perhaps it’s partly our desire to “get things right” that has pushed technology to the point where everything can be recorded in vivid detail in a way that is shockingly effortless.

Could this be a subconscious way we are aiming to correct the “ills” of our “failing” memories?

The Ache

I want to end by posing a simple question: are these memories with all their inaccuracies, discrepancies, and subconscious biases really “failed”?

The longing that we feel when memories kindle our emotions reveal something important about us. Even if the details are not entirely accurate, the details are there precisely because they point us, perhaps, toward something primal and valuable about ourselves.

The ache of something we lost.
The faded remnants of who we want to be.
The sad echoes of who we used to be.

We need to let these memories speak to us.

We need to be reminded of the manifold ways that we have left beautiful pieces of ourselves behind in our stampede toward progress and innovation. These are emotional shards that we need to engage with once again. Sometimes the pain of the past can show us how far we’ve come and sometimes it’s there to help us see something hideous that we don’t want to become again.

The good, the beautiful, the ugly are all there to help us move forward into what it means to be fully human.

Can I give us all a word of advice…

…put down your phone and be present.

Make new memories and help them concrete into something that you will come back to, years from now, over and over again with wonder and reflexive curiosity.

Embrace the bizarre paradox of memory, and in doing so, allow yourself to be a little more human again.

If you want to continue this journey exploring memory, here are some recent stories from other Medium writers on the subject. Diana Marcum shares her experience with islands and saudade, and how the Azores touched something deep inside her life experiences. Ryan Putnam uses creative storytelling to wrestle with the recent memories of his diagnosis of MS and what it all means for him, his career, and his family. And Craig Mod shares about how creating physical artifacts can “give edges” to our experiences and memories.