My earliest memory frightens me.
I recall being inside the screened-in patio of my parents’ Florida home. It was muggy. I was naked. I am running my two-year-old body through the patio door into the tall-grassed lawn toward the ravine that divided the property. I chase a blue ball that I semi-intentionally keep kicking. I watch the ball fall in the water while two yellow marbles emerge above several feet of murky, turbulent water. The marbles creep along until they grow a snout, nostrils, and a scaly, elongated jaw. I scream. My mother comes running out, older brother in tow, spends one heartbeat recognizing the situation and the next carrying me like a football toward the house.
I’m scared because she is scared. She cries. I cry. She manages a telephone call and the next minute our neighbor stalks into the backyard, armed with shotgun, chewing gum, and camouflage pants. Another minute goes by, I am moved away from the window and into my mother’s arms, and an Earth-shattering blast blows through us. The neighbor comes in the house. My mother cries tears of relief. I cry over the loss of my blue ball.
My memory of the would-be alligator attack is a terrifying experience. But it’s not the brush with death that still frightens me. Nor is it the raw maternal emotions. And it’s not even the aggressively violent protection that ended the ordeal.
It’s the fact that it never happened.
To hear it from my mother’s perspective, it was my brother, not me, who was sitting on the grass. She spied the alligator swimming down the canal, left me inside, gathered my brother, phoned the neighbor, and by the time the neighbor arrived with his gun, the alligator had swam away. I was never in any danger and likely unaware of alligators existing outside the zoo.
I am compelled by logic to believe my mother’s version of the incident to be the more factual rendition. But that leaves me in the confusing position of remembering something that never happened. More accurately, I recall an experience lacking external verisimilitude while maintaining its internal truthiness. “Remember” implies restoring a past experience; “recall” is merely bringing an item back into one’s mind. How am I able to relive an experience while never having experienced it?
The answer gets to the fundamentals of memory, experience, and the fuzzy boundary between them. When we experience something, that experience is mediated by specific neurological activity — the sense organ sends information to the brain, usually via the thalamus, where it’s processed, analyzed, interpreted, and acted upon.
But we experience far more than what we observe outside of ourselves. There is a rich, complex inner-world of experience that includes everything we think and imagine. And these activities are no less “real” than the physical world we experience, as far as the brain is concerned. The only difference between vividly imagining an apple and seeing an apple is that somewhere in the brain, likely the frontal cortices, there’s a group of neurons shooting off a signal saying “this is imagined; this isn’t real.” One theory regarding hallucinations, including the schizophrenic type, are that they’re simply mental imagery without the mental tag of internally generated.
There are several different types of memory. The one that allows me to close my eyes and relive past experiences is a form of long-term memory called episodic memory (think rewatching an episode of your life). When you remember, you briefly relive that experience. Because all forms of experience — externally perceived, imagined, or remembered — are mediated via similar methods, there’s only a fuzzy distinction between the three. A memory is an approximated reactivation of the neural circuitry of that original experience, similar to imagination.
Over time, reactivating memories distorts them. Your current mental state, the alternate phrasing or wording of the narrative, and other factors change how you recall the memory. These changes accumulate until you’ve imagined a completely new scenario – one that never happened anywhere but inside your mind. But with the boundary between what happened historically and what you’ve lived mentally so blurred – does imaging an experience make it any less real?