An Eclectic Human
A newsletter about design, community, and being a human

1.19 Nineteen, seventeen, fifteen, thirteen

I had the privilege of attending a performance by The King’s Singers last week, and it got me thinking about memory.

Back in 2009, I was in a choir at my university when The King’s Singers came and performed with us. We sang a large composition called “An Atlantic Bridge” originally written for The King’s Singers and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This was my first semester in the choir, and it was exhilarating to share the stage with world-renowned musicians singing great music.

Most of my memories from that concert are of standing on the choir risers with a symphony orchestra between me and the conductor. Every once in a while, a melody will come to mind and bring with it memories of learning the song. I’ll remember the lines where we sang numbers counting backwards by twos and how hard it was to remember that the last time we sang them there was a break after “13”—if anyone forgot and kept on singing “11”, it would break the silence and ruin the moment. (I’ll remember how some poor soprano forgot during the performance at precisely that point.)

Actually that last memory is the interesting one. I remember that difficult passage because of the rehearsals and how much Sister Hall drilled it into us, but I think I remember it better because I often listen to the recording from that evening. I might have forgotten all about that embarassing mistake if it had not been preserved in digital perfection for me to relive at will.

While most of my memories are of the rehearsal hall and my view from high on the stage, I have some “tangible” evidence of what happened that night. The recordings of the whole suite are in my iTunes library. Somewhere I probably still have the program, autographed by all six members of The King’s Singers. And I have photographs of me standing next to each one of them. (As a matter of fact, if you remember my social media avatar from several years ago wearing a tuxedo, you may like to know that the uncropped version shows me standing next to the shortest member of the group, the countertenor David Hurley.)

So I’ve wondered whether, like the audio recording, these photos have helped keep alive my memory of that concert. None of the photos align with my mental images, but perhaps looking at them brings those other memories to the surface more often. And if so, how does that figure in with the fallibility of my memory? It’s well known that telling a story over and over again tends to enhance and strengthen that “memory”, even if it had only been partially true to begin with. We can make ourselves believe that we remember things even when the very process of recalling a memory makes it unreliable.

On the other hand, perhaps I remember the performance better than the subsequent atrium socializing precisely because I didn’t take any photos from the stage:

We commit things to memory better when we give singular focus to the thing we want to remember. Taking out our phone or camera and trying to take a picture fractures that focus, and makes it more difficult for our brains to cement the memory.

Whatever the case, it’s interesting to think about. Memory is one of the crucial parts of our identity and ongoing sense of self, but perhaps its fallibility is also a crucial part of being human.

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How do you think photographs or similar memorabilia have influenced your perception of your past?