Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Memory Triggers

I don't usually dwell on the past. Not my own personal past anyway. My occupation, of course, finds me dwelling on other people's pasts all the time. So I found myself in an interesting position yesterday being confronted by my own history.

Everywhere I turned I ran into memory triggers. This has never happened to me before or I've never been willing to open that door.

The middle of the day found me exploring some historic New England cemeteries with a friend. The memory card on my camera filled up so I stopped taking photos. There weren't that many very old gravestones so I stopped looking at the carvings and started reading the names.

I saw names like Shufelt and Mowry. Names that took me right back to high school. They were names of former classmates that hadn't crossed my mind in years.

High school seems like another lifetime to me. I hadn't thought about these people much less seen them in over 25 years. To have a trigger take me back to a detailed vision of my past was unexpected.

Later in the day while I was driving around I heard the song Eternal Flame by the Bangles. I have a powerful memory of that song from when I was a university study abroad student in London. I had been walking down my street when a young man came toward me singing that song at the top of his lungs. He was so full of joy and life and uninhibited by my presence.

That song yesterday triggered an intense memory trip back to my days in London. I have often had brief thoughts about that year but never the movie-like replay I experienced yesterday. I found myself mentally walking through my old flat and the pub across the street. I remembered the people who I met in London and friends from the pub. I thought about my old roommates and wondered what they were doing now all these years later.

Like I said, I'm not much given to reflecting on my own past. I prefer to look forward and keep building the future. I found myself in a strange position giving in to memories.

Have you ever experienced memory triggers that take you back to a moment in time? Does it give you a fleeting memory or a full blown movie of your past? Do you enjoy the memory triggers or do you typically shut them out like I do?

Photo credit: photo by Sweet Cheeks Willie and used under the creative commons license.


  1. Marian, I absolutely have memory triggers. And interestingly enough in my post today, I suggest journaling when you have one. Particularly when I am caught by something in the day that reminds me of my childhood, or a family member that has past or if it somehow reminds me of my ancestors and my research, I journal. Journaling is a great way to explore those memory triggers. So no I do not shut them out, I embrace them.

  2. Last week, I was plucking my eyebrows and memories of an older lady that worked in the same hospital came to mind. Her face, name, her job, where she was born all came to mind. We were not close but would run into each other at the hospital where we worked, speak and talk a few minutes. This was over 35 years ago and the thoughts came to mind about how you have people cross your path along your life journey for a short period and they leave an impression.

  3. I have memory triggers all the time and enjoy them. As someone who blogs, they provide me with blogging material to get them down on 'paper' so that perhaps someday, I can give them to my descendants so that they know me in a way that I will never know my ancestors.

  4. Thanks for writing a blog we can all relate to. Memories are powerful realities, and they stay "inside" your mind, waiting, whether they come out or not. I have movie-like replays all the time, some of which are expressed or evoked in my family memoir. Everyone's different, and I believe I go in a direction opposite from you -- when I have a memory trigger, I turn in that direction so that I can seek it out, understand it, try to de-cathect it if it's disturbing, and put it to rest. On the one hand, the feel-good memory triggers are just a wonderful experience. Then again, the something-is bothering-me memory triggers lead me to some weird or unpleasant memory that I've never accepted or "resolved." Over the years, I've resolved more and more, and so I feel better and better. It's a good trajectory.

  5. The smell of lilacs takes me back home to the yard where I grew up every time. Songs trigger memories all the time.

  6. I love most of my memory triggers (before about age 20). The rest I use to help me heal and move on to a brighter future.

  7. I just did something like this with some students. I asked them to try to remember their first experience with information. I described how the smell of old books takes me back to 5th grade. My teacher at the time noticed that I had an interest in history and recommended that I visit an old mansion with my parents. While there, it was the private library that grabbed me and has stuck with me all these years. It's amazing what can trigger these memories. I think smell (like my moldy books) and sound (like the song you heard) can often be more powerful triggers than merely seeing.

  8. Every once in a while I smell the smell of Gleem, and it always brings to mind my grandfather who used it for years to comb his hair and keep it styled. Or a heavy perfume that my grandmother used to use...brings her to mind...or the scent that an old boyfriend used. Each sends me down memory lane for a refreshing reminder and sometimes it jogs a memory that I need to write down so that my descendants will know about it.

  9. I get memory triggers all the time, usually for weird things -- and of course I have more monumental "Bangles Eternal Flame" moments, too. (That is a fantastic song, btw.) Just last night I happened to be near a television set, and I heard the sound to the start of 60 Minutes on CBS. I was in a restaurant, but I heard that "ticking" stop watch sound and I got sort of jittery, just for a moment. That was because it reminded me of Sunday nights. And that reminded me of finishing my homework when I was growing up before the weekend ended. And that reminded me of Monday mornings. I probably need a therapist. :)