The power of memory, or do you remember where you were when you heard that Amy Winehouse died?

Do you remember where you were when you heard that Amy Winehouse died?

The other day I heard a song by Amy Winehouse “Our day may come,” which was released after her death (play it on amazon).

When I heard it, I though how tragic it was to loose such a talented singer so early in her life. And then, to my great surprise, I had a flash of memory that recalled in exact detail the moment when I heard that she had died. I recalled the exact conversation and the exact location – it was during a visit to Paris right in front of a little Irish pub where I had enjoyed a delightful amber beer just a few minutes before.

The thing that amazes me about this is that Amy Winehouse never had any special meaning to me. I don’t overly like nor dislike her music, and probably only heard a few of her songs before. So how is it that I can recall this moment so vividly?

Surely we all have certain life-events, traumatic or enjoyable, that are vividly entrenched in our minds. But this was not one of them.

If you think about it, you probably can recall many important moments in your life in great detail. Some are publically written into our collective memory. Maybe you lucidly remember where we were when you learned of 9/11. Depending on your age, you may also remember in detail the Challenger space-shuttle disaster, or the first moon landing, or when Kennedy was shot, etc. And when we do, we often recall everything about these moments in full detail, like where we were, what we did, and the shock or awe we felt. Still other events are deeply private, buy remembered the same way. (Actors call these touchstone moments, and use them to bring up certain emotions; a technique which I describe in my books).

Can you recall some of these moments, either private or public. How many details do you remember?

It makes sense that we can recall the truly important moments in our lives with such detail. But then, there is Amy -- to me, learning of her death had no emotional impact at all. And yet I remember everything about that moment.

How can this be? Neuroscience may give us some clues. In the 1950’s, as part of brain-surgery on patients with epilepsy, Wilder Penfield electrically stimulated brain-cells in the temporal lobes and some of his subjects remembered scenes they had long forgotten in vivid detail, like a certain song or a scene from a childhood window. Other experiments show that our memories are interlinked with many other areas, which explains why a particular stimulus that was associated with the experience can trigger a memory. There is a wonderful example of this in one of Marcel Proust’s novels, where a character eats a little pastry called a Madeleine and is flooded with long forgotten memories of his childhood of visiting his grandmother who had lovingly prepared the same tasty treat, dipped in some lemon tea. Here, the associated taste triggered the whole experience. We also know of instances where highly traumatic events unleash a whole lifetime of memories: people who come close to death often report that their whole life flashed before their eyes like a movie (this happened to a relative of mine).

Nobody knows exactly how much we really store in our brains. I certainly admit that I have a hard time remembering certain details from my life; a fact that my wife keeps constantly reminding me of.

But then, there is Amy, and that vivid recollection of that moment. It baffles me to think how much is stored in our brains, waiting to be recalled. So much lies in the background, part of each person’s story, making us who we are.

So here’s to Amy. Thanks for the memories. Our day will come, indeed.

Or better yet, our day is here, today, every day, to be remembered forever.

So make the best of it.

Find more information on how to use your own touchstone moments to your advantage and help you overcome limitations in your life in my books “The Steps of Essence” and “Be True, Be Happy.”

Bet True!
Hanns-Oskar Porr
Copyright Hanns-Oskar Porr, 2012