There was a tree I liked to climb in the backyard of my childhood home. “Liked to climb,” I should say, are someone else’s words. I don’t know when they became my own, but some time between then and now I adopted the words in agreement that climbing that tree was something I liked to do and did often. Truthfully, many of my childhood proclivities lasted about a week. So maybe there was one week when I “liked to climb” that tree. How should I know, though? Memory is a powerful editor.
Apparently, I fell out of the tree and was stung and sliced by bees and thorns that had me surrounded. I don’t remember slipping or hitting the ground with the thud I’m told my body made, but I do remember thinking “I’m falling” and then telling myself to cry because that seemed like what one is supposed to do when one falls out of the tree they like to climb. When I wrote about this incident for a high school assignment, though, I remembered everything so well the story became a varnished hero’s journey that doubled as a parable for environmental devastation. It’s funny how memory changes depending on what you need from it.
The Sound of Music of my recollection is about pink lemonade and marionettes. A decade later, I rewatched the movie and saw swastikas for the first time after hearing Julie Andrews sing “Do-Rei-Me” for years.
Research on memory doesn’t always agree. Preeminent experts, such as Dr. Eric Kandel of Columbia University, have long believed long-term memory to scaffold or “consolidate” itself and remain impervious to alteration. Other psychologists like Dr. Karim Nader of McGill University, however, have challenged this idea and found good evidence for the way memories change when they are summoned.
The only thing I remember from geometry is that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Be that as it may, I’ve never had the good fortune of traversing distance in such a manner. I take detours, long, ugly, meandering, stop and go, find myself in the parking lot of a shuttered FedEx in a town without a name sort of detours. They are rarely scenic.
One summer, I found myself in the position of driving what should have been 10 miles to a college in downtown Cleveland a few times a week. I was meant to assist a physics professor with a linguistics project that had to do with proving if the Indus Valley Civilization, an ancient civilization in South Asia, had communicated with a language we have yet to translate. It was a mystery, the kind I was used to seeing already solved in history books. The professor I was paired with believed he could use physics to prove the Indus peoples’ linguistics capabilities, which intrigued anthropologists and linguists around the world. My thoughts, however, had more to do with if and when my car would be towed from the parking spot that was unequivocally illegal.
I spent most days at the university in a dusty break room that smelled of burnt coffee and books no one referenced anymore. As I put 1s and 0s into a Wolfram Alpha program that was supposed to let us speak to ghosts, I considered the fortuity of my body. Minutes earlier I had been careening past exits and narrowly missing collisions. If my journey to this room had been any more precarious, I’d be in Pennsylvania by now, or worse.
Cognitive scientist and Barnard psychology professor Alexandra Horowitz says our reality is incomplete. Her 2013 book On Looking chronicles eleven neighborhood walks committed to the perceptions we are accustomed to missing. “Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.”
A principle in physics called conditional entropy ultimately confirmed that an Indus language existed. Conditional entropy rules that all languages are random in the same way.
Where’s Waldo is a children’s book of hectic pages that doubles as a puzzle.The reader is meant to locate Waldo amongst the illustrated crowds. The series hinges on the reader’s ability to pay attention to Waldo and Waldo alone. The crowds, despite their finely drawn whimsy, are meant to distract. But when you find Waldo once, it’s hard to unsee him from the pages.
The phrase “road hypnotism” was first used in a 1921 article to describe the phenomenon in which one drives a car in a trancelike state. Later, a study in 1929 updated the term to “highway hypnosis” and focused on the way one experiences a state of “absence” while driving along monotonous roads, lulled to sleep by the white lines gone gray with black tire marks. Under this condition, drivers describe forgetting how long or far they have traveled.
I’ve never experienced such a trance. I mostly drive on local roads, amidst tangled suburban streets. I know culs-de-sac and roundabouts well. Even though these streets are familiar, every stop sign, intersection, and carwash is an opportunity to recall first accidents, lemonade stands, and wintry runs. I think highway hypnosis is a better term because it’s true to what I know. While long anonymous highways may encourage drivers to forget space and time, familiar streets––whether they be city or suburb––demand you remember.