What Connects Us To The Past
I am in Istanbul on my way to Astana the capital of Kazakhstan. I stopped for few days to acclimate myself to the time changes and so as not to arrive for a consulting assignment with my client feeling like a zombie.
As expected, I cannot sleep. And when I cannot sleep I read and write and think. All of which usually leads to insights. This time my thoughts turned to the past; more specifically, to ideas about what connects us to our past.
The answer seemed suddenly obvious. Memories.
But how are these memories triggered? What mechanism causes us to feel nostalgic or fearful?
I believe that it is the five senses.
The most obvious trigger is sight that is recalling images from the past. That is why we take pictures of what we want to remember. Years later when we look at those photos the past becomes vividly alive. It is as if we were transported to that past and our emotions quickly rise to the surface.
Our sense of smell also transports us back to the past. We might smell something familiar and it might remind us of something we experienced in an earlier day. And it does not have to be joyful.
I know a woman who was raped by a man with a distinctive smell. To this day she cannot tolerate that smell on anyone who comes in close proximity to her. It brings to mind memories of the rapist and she gets panicky. The memories are still very much alive, stimulated by that recollection of the smell.
How about the sound of music? We all have sensations that are stirred by the chords of a particular song. In my case I am flooded with the memory of a past love whenever I hear the music from the movie Dr. Zhivago. Years ago I went to see that movie with a girl I loved very much. It was in high school. It was sixty years ago, and she is long since gone from my life, but each time I hear that music my heart skips a beat.
What about the sense of touch? For sure. If someone touched you a certain way and it was very pleasurable, and the touch is repeated even fifty years later, it will bring the memories back.
Interesting, no? But does any moral follow from this?
I think so. For one, the more we activate our senses in the present, the more we will have memories in the future. And if the senses are positively activated, the more likely our memories will be pleasurable.
To say it differently, the more our senses are activated, the more we are alive.
What occurs when we read a book? I suggest our memory will be clearer and sharper in direct relation to what was visualized as we read it. Right?
But how about a book where there was neither sound, smell nor visual stimulus? And no recalling of touches or taste either?
Like learning math.
How would we remember the experience?
We will remember the subject matter but not the experience. Unless we were punished for missing a lesson and a parent screamed at us.
Now if anyone raises his or her voice the way our parents did, then we will remember that math class very well indeed.
In the Jewish tradition, it is interesting that learning was associated with something sweet. There was a sweet reward for learning. Thus, learning was not to be remembered as something negative, but positive, and we became a nation of lifetime learners.
When we raise our children today and want to create a future memory for them, perhaps the best strategy is to activate their senses. After all, we remember our mother who may be long since gone by the comfort food she fed us. And if our father used to yell at us, that tone of voice probably still haunts us today, evoking the same discomfort felt as a child.
So we have a choice. How do we want to remember? Or how do we want to be remembered?
Perhaps by the senses we are able to activate.
Ichak Kalderon Adizes