Saturday, June 2, 2018

Photographic Memories

On a clear day the first thing I see is Canada.

My bathroom window faces north. From Bellingham I can see a line of distant mountains. Somewhere up there the Cascade Range ends where the BC Coast Range begins, divided by the Fraser River.  

A couple of jagged snowcapped peaks are particularly prominent, due north of Bellingham. The other day I tried to identify the mountains. I got out a detailed topographical map of the region, but I couldn’t translate the images in my brain into the spatial information on the map. 

To the contrary, this is how my memory visualized the peaks:

I usually have a good map sense, but this time my memory didn’t give it much to work with.

Other mountains have become so familiar that my memory generates a detailed image of the whole mass – such as Mount Rainier and Mount Baker, or the twin lion peaks above Stanley Park. But even those images are pretty blurry. 

Supposedly there are a handful of people with “photographic” or “eidetic” memories that allow them to visualize objects with the same high resolution as the brain receives from direct visual stimuli. But that’s not how most memories work. Definitely not mine.

Don’t get me wrong. I have an excellent memory, stuffed full of trivia and experiences. I also have a gift for making mental connections. (Or maybe it’s a curse – both logomania and our lazy brains can inspire us to see patterns that do not correspond to reality.) However, humans’ ability to retain and retrieve pictures is quite limited. Keep that in mind if you’re ever on a jury, and the prosecutor calls an eyewitness who emphatically insists she saw the defendant running away from the crime scene.

Instead, faster than we can sense, our brain retrieves information about an object – including both what we retain from our original observations as well as from our subsequent associations and memories related to the object. Our brain then presents itself with a composite visualization, like a computer-generated animation. It’s like I have a personal Mountain App creating graphics inside my head.

One my most cherished choral memories is singing Herbert Howells’ Requiem at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle years ago. Howells’ stunning twentieth-century composition alternates Latin texts from the traditional requiem mass with three hopeful psalms from the King James Bible. 

Psalm 121 begins “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” As I look out my window towards Canada, my brain's soundtrack usually starts playing Howells. The baritone voice in my head (it’s Vernon, the soloist from Saint Mark’s) begins the movement. He and the choir alternate lines (“My help cometh from the Lord,” etc.), until the choir takes over with a joyous “Behold!”   

I try to meditate every day. I’m terrible at mindfully breathing and maintaining focus. But on a clear day, I can usually count on at least one moment of zen as I lift my eyes to the Canadian hills.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve looked to the mountains for relief. Until now, it’s usually involved looking to the west – whether I’ve been enjoying sunsets across Utah valleys, the Olympic Mountains from Seattle, the view from Wreck Beach, or sitting alone in the hot tub on Whidbey Island. 

My parents' house across town also faces west towards the San Juan Islands. In contrast, all the kids and I see to the west of our house are trees. During this season of riotous plant growth, the rain forest practically touches the house. The only real view is the second-floor vista facing north towards Canada. 

Recently I realized the only other time I regularly faced north was from the bedroom of my childhood home in Vancouver. I vividly remember taking comfort from that same blue-green Coast Range I now see in the distance.

Then all my reading about brains and memory planted doubt. It’s been four decades – could I really see mountains from the window of my childhood bedroom? 

When I tried to sketch the image from memory, all I got was a lumpy blue mountain with a cravat of ski slope: 

I resolved to investigate. 

On my way up to Vancouver Men’s Chorus retreat a couple of months ago, I stopped by our old house. As with most Vancouver neighborhoods, the bungalow across the lane has been torn down and replaced with a huge stucco monstrosity. But there’s still a peak-a-boo view of the ski slopes. 

Back home in Bellingham, I compared my memory drawing to photos I took nearby. Looks pretty close to me:

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