Do Our Memories Make Us Who We Are?


A new book explores this fascinating question

Are you the same person you were five minutes ago? How about five months ago? Or five years? In his foreword to Adventures in Memory: The Science and Secrets of Remembering and Forgetting by Hilde Østby and Ylva Østby, author Sam Kean describes the Ship of Theseus Paradox, in which the Greek hero's ship is preserved as a memorial. But it experiences wear and tear over the years, things break and erode, and so its parts are replaced. Rather than decaying, it is slowly, piece by piece, rebuilt, which raises the question—is it still the same ship? Our bodies are similar; Kean writes: "Over the course of a decade or so, every last atom in your body gets replaced. So are you still you in the end?"

Our memories have much to do with how we define ourselves, how we do, in fact, remain the same people. Though we go through physical changes on a perceivable as well as molecular level, though we might learn new things and change our minds about certain issues, most of us still retain a sense of self. Part of that self is built upon our life narratives, which are built on the memories we've stored, the stories we've been told about ourselves and have internalized, and the futures we imagine or work toward in our day-to-day lives. It is this process—the development of memory, its complexity, its connection to narrative and storytelling, and ultimately the unbreakable tie between past and future—that the Norwegian Østby sisters—Hilde, a novelist, and Ylva, a neuropsychologist—seek to explore in this wonderful new book, translated by Marianne Lindvall.

The authors begin their story about memory by invoking the image of the seahorse (which remains a recurring theme), because of its similarity to the part of the brain that stores much of our developing memory: the hippocampus, which literally means "horse sea monster" in Latin (so, seahorse). The hippocampus was discovered in 1564 by an Italian doctor who had, at the time, no idea yet that it was so crucial to the development and storage of memory. From there, the narrative moves firmly to more recent history, and to the early subjects of memory research, like Henry Molaison, a man with epilepsy who was treated at age 27 with a surgery that removed his hippocampi on both sides of the brain in order to cure his seizures. The seizures stopped, all right, but Molaison lost the ability to store new memories, making everything after his 25th birthday (he lost two years before the surgery too) fleeting, available to him only in the moment. Think of Drew Barrymore's character in 50 First Dates, whose memory was wiped clean each night as she slept, dooming her to live countless days thinking they were all the same one; Molaison was something like that, as he had a sense of self, a memory of his history, and an ability to adapt to his surroundings and participate in conversation, but couldn't remember what happened a half hour ago, could be surprised by the same joke over and over again, and had no sense of his age without looking in the mirror and seeing that time had passed.

In contrast, the authors look at Molaison's opposite, in a way: Solomon Shereshevsky had a memory so prodigal, in part due to synesthesia, that once he discovered it was abnormal, he turned it into his job by becoming a touring memory artist, wowing audiences with his ability to memorize and repeat lists of words and numbers. But "contrary to what you may think," the Østby sisters tell us, "an amazing memory—the kind so good we dream of having it ourselves—didn't make Solomon rich, nor did it make him powerful or particularly happy. He jumped from job to job and finally died alone in 1958 without friends or family by his side."

These two men exemplify some of the extremes of memory—its loss due to surgery and its impressiveness due to synesthesia. But what about the rest of us, those of us with more or less normal memories? The Østby sisters discuss how our memories work, where short- and long-term memory is stored, and how anxiety about losing significant memories is fairly common, though they also assure us that forgetting is a normal part of how our brain operates. We need room to store significant memories, and so the daily, unimportant moments—what you ate for breakfast last Tuesday, how your hair looked on August 12, 2012—aren't prioritized in our brains. "The fate of a memory," they write, "is mostly determined by how much it means to us. Personal memories are important to us. They are tied to our hopes, our values, and our identities. Memories that contribute to our personal autobiography prevail in our minds." Which raised an interesting and frankly upsetting question about memories of trauma.

In the age of #MeToo, when we're having open and frank discussions about rape and sexual assault and harassment, it's startling to realize that there's a reason men like Judge Kavanaugh, Louis C.K., and the many others accused of violence against women don't remember the events. Or, if they do remember them, they don't remember them as important. It's because those events, to them, were not significant. The events in which they harmed others weren't stored in their minds in the same way that they were stored for those who were harmed. The chapter in Adventures in Memory that deals with trauma is especially interesting, detailing what are called the "memory wars"—the disagreement amongst scientists about how trauma is remembered. There are two camps, one that believes trauma fragments memory and can cause repression and dissociation, and those who believe that trauma is remembered more vividly than other memories. There is, as yet, no agreement, and anecdotally, many of us have likely heard versions of both these experiences.

As the authors explore both older and more recent science, several things stand out to me. First, they highlight—casually, without fanfare—many scientists who are women, a fact that I noticed because it is still so common to hear only the names of men mentioned in relation to groundbreaking science. Second, the conversational, narrative-driven tone of the book makes it an excellent read for anyone curious about the topic of memory. It's an accessible book, which makes it all the more joyful for those of us who aren't familiar with the science involved.

Adventures in Memory: The Science and Secrets of Remembering and Forgetting is available for purchase, here.

NYLON uses affiliate links and may earn a commission if you purchase something through those links, but every product chosen is selected independently.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds



Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.