headshot of George Dinwiddie with books he's written

iDIA Computing Newsletter

March 2024

Remember This

What's the earliest memory you can recall? Is it a smell? A sound? A scene?

How distinct is it? If it's a visual memory, is it like a photograph or movie?

How old were you at the time?

My earliest memory dates to age 2. I can date this accurately because it's from a family vacation to Key West, the only time we went there.

I saw flamingos for the first time in my life. I didn't know what they were, though I could tell that they were birds. I tugged at my mother. "Mama, look at those pink birds."

This story has been told many times in my family. Apparently I said it with a distinct South Carolina drawl, and it sounded like "pank birds" to the rest of the family. And so, in my memory, it has become "pank birds" to me.

The "pank birds" story has been told many times in the family, sometimes making me the butt of jokes by my older siblings. It's OK. That doesn't bother me any more. But when I think of that memory, I remember the story more than I remember the actual scene. I certainly wasn't aware of my drawl at the time. Memories are subject to shifting with the retelling.

"Every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the later recall of the event. Thus, the next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but what you remembered the previous time."[1]

What never became a family story was the frustration I felt that no one seemed to be listening at the time. That part of the memory is all mine.

I once had an earlier memory. I no long remember what it was, but I remember that it was pre-verbal, so it must have been very early. It was just a remembered feeling--no words or visuals. I can no longer remember that memory, though I can remember having it.

I suspect that our feelings are what stick the most firmly in our memories. They seem to hang around long after the other details have faded.

Another early memory I have is stepping onto the ballast stone street off of a high stone curb in Charleston. We were headed to the zoo.

This was not a notable incident to others, so they didn't take notice and it did not become a family story. I can't date it accurately because we had family in Charleston and visited a number of times back in those days. And anyone who might be able to guess at the year is long gone.

But I still remember it. I remember the ballast stones of the street were shiny. I remember the curb was high and I was anxious to step down that far onto an uneven surface.

Remembering alters the memory. I can't say how much of that memory is original and how much is rewritten. I think of it as being like core memory.

Magnetic core memory was used in computers back in the 1950s and 1960s. Bits were stored in the magnetic orientation of small toroids of ferrimagnetic ceramic material. The data was preserved even when not powered, but reading the bit erased it. Therefore the use of magnetic core memory required rewriting the the data right after it was read.

The mechanism of the human brain is certainly different, but the fact that retrieving memories alters them is not.

"Memories change the more you recall them. Life experience adds layers to a memory, and that can change your inner narrative. Our imagination can also create fake parts of memories or entirely fake memories."[2]

So what's the point of all this exploration of memory?

The point is to be alert to the fact that while our memories are very helpful to us, critical for navigating our lives, they are not to be blindly trusted.

When others remember an event differently than you do, perhaps is not helpful to argue they're wrong. Perhaps you're both wrong, but in different ways. Certainly our memories of past events are incomplete. Hearing someone else's memory of that event can give us new information. Unreliable information, to be sure, but information that offers us a different perspective. Our own memories are also unreliable information.

Question even those things you personally witnessed. It may save you from some costly mistakes. It may help you uncover some deeper truths.

/signed/ George

P.S. Does this stir up any memories, old or recent, for you? Have you ever remembered that you've forgotten a memory? Have you ever realized that your memory couldn't possibly be true as you remembered it?

Please help me out.

I would appreciate it if you could reply with a few words about your reaction to this newsletter issue.

And if you'd like to talk further about this topic, you could schedule a Zoom Session with me to talk about it.

Schedule Zoom Session

Or you can also simply reply to this email or send an email to newsletter@idiacomputing.com to continue the conversation. There's a person, not a bot, on this end. I'd really love to hear from you.


1. Your Memory is like the Telephone Game by Marla Paul, 2012

2. Did Your Memories Happen The Way You Remember Them? by Shweta Mishra, 2023