Have you ever wondered what is the oldest memory of your life? If not, then you should really just try for a second. How old is that memory, exactly? Is it from when you were a toddler? Or is your earliest memory in life from when you were in preschool?
How do I remember my life? By constantly writing down old memories in my personal timeline journal. In my case, this is a digital document that I can access from my smartphone, in which I write down every memory as soon as I think of it. This is how I make sure I never forget hundreds of my greatest memories.
I want to show you exactly what I’m doing to inspire you to think about your own memories for a moment. I’ll show you my personal timeline journal, filled with all the memories of my life.
- Filling in the blanks
- My personal timeline journal and how it works
- What is the earliest memory you can remember?
- How to remember memories?
- How to actually remember the memories of your life?
- Want to remember your life more? Take more photographs!
I am quite obsessed with memorizing my own memories.
This obsession entered my mind almost 7 years ago. I was 20 years old at the time, and I wanted to make sure I’d never lose any of my memories ever again. My life was about to get slightly more interesting, and I wanted to be able to reflect on this period and read about it later when I was old. This is where I began journaling and tracking my happiness.
But what about all those years before I started journaling? How do I remember my life from before I started writing a journal?
I wanted to find a way to “immortalize” my memories from before that period. That’s when I came up with the idea of “filling in the blanks”.
Journaling, gratitude, mindfulness, and introspection. What do all these things have in common? It’s that they’re all significantly correlated to your happiness. That’s what the section Journaling For Happiness is all about in the biggest (freely available) guide on how to be happy.
Filling in the blanks
What is this idea about? What exactly is “filling in the blanks”.
It’s basically my way of slowly remembering my life, one step at a time.
Ever since I started journaling and tracking happiness, I have immortalized pretty much every memory that happened on these days. If I ever have trouble remembering something from 4 years ago, I’ll just open my happiness tracking journal and there it is: I probably covered this memory in all its detail and glory in my journal!
I obviously don’t have these daily memories from the days before I started journaling. Or at least, not in writing.
Most of these memories still exist somewhere in my head, though.
I want to write them down before I forget about them completely. I want to write down these memories as I stumble upon them, to slowly fill a memory journal that contains memories from the time before I started journaling!
And that’s what I call “filling in the gaps”. I want to slowly fill my memory journal so that I eventually have a timeline of what (I think) happened to my life at any point in time.
My personal timeline journal and how it works
My personal timeline journal is actually really simple.
Whenever I remember something that happened in my life that I haven’t yet recorded, I simply open up my timeline journal and write it down.
There are only 3 columns I fill in here:
- The approximate date of the memory
- My age at the time
- The memory itself (this is quite an important step!)
What do I use to remember my life?
I use Google Sheets to keep track of my memories. It’s extremely convenient to use, as I can access it from my smartphone, tablet, and laptop. It saves the data in the cloud instantaneously, and I never have to worry about losing my precious memories.
So as soon as I stumble upon a memory, I whip out my smartphone and log it all in a matter of seconds!
As a result, I now have a digital memory journal that contains a couple of hundred rows of memories, ranging from small and vague memories to long and detailed recollections!
I have also visualized my memory journal in a timeline, which I think is a cool idea. This allows me to easily recognize the areas of my life which I haven’t yet memorized as well. This also shows what I mean with “filling in the blanks”. I want to cover this entire timeline with memories!
The size of these bubbles is determined by the number of words I’ve used to describe the memories. A small bubble is, therefore, a relatively vague memory without a lot of details.
I started tracking my happiness at the start of December 2013, which is where the bubbles are way bigger. That’s when I started journaling, meaning I automatically saved all my memories for later with a lot of detail.
This visualization shows the low number of memories I have of my life before I started journaling. There is so much of my life that I have simply forgotten, and that’s something I really regret. I wish I started journaling earlier, but you know what they say:
The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.
What is the earliest memory you can remember?
If you didn’t think about this question at the start of this article, then now is a good time to dig deep inside your memories.
You are probably thinking about how this question is actually very hard to answer, right?
You are not alone.
Everyone who I have asked this question has struggled with finding an answer. Ha, even I find it difficult, and I keep a freaking memory journal!
My earliest memory
It’s the memory that is the leftmost bubble in my memory timeline. It’s a pretty small bubble, actually, meaning that the memory is relatively small and blurry. But I still remember it. This is what I’ve written down in my personal timeline journal:
I vaguely remember how I was at kindergarten and was about to be given a shot via a needle. All the kids and their parents were gathered in the gym building. I wasn’t impressed at all, and just sat there watching it. I didn’t feel anything, and I remember that some of the older kids made a BIG deal about it. Some even cried. My mom actually remembers this as well. She says I just sat there and watched the needle go into my arm without even blinking. I wish I could still do that now…
This is (so far) the first vague memory I have of myself. I don’t know the exact age of this memory, but I estimate it must have happened when I was about 4 years old. The details are pretty blurry though…
So you might be wondering now, what is the first real BIG memory of my life? What’s the clearest and most early memory of my life, that I could recall just as if it happened yesterday?
I’m already quite a bit older by the time this happened, but this is what I’ve got:
This is one of the most epic stories of my youth. I was in second grade and 5 years old or something. The entire day at school consisted of playing outside, being read a book and relaxing. We were free to choose whatever activity we wanted to do for the morning and the afternoon. We got to choose in which part of the classroom we wanted to play. There was a building corner, a drawing corner and some others. I only cared about the building and drawing corners, just like the other boys in the class.
The school had bathroom stalls with doors that were super short. Everybody could peek above it and watch you sit there. Fucking weird. That’s why I NEVER went to the bathroom when I was at school. NEVER.
This one day, I had spent the entire morning in the building corner and I had to pee like a maniac. I didn’t know what to do, and I was starting to get really stressed. There was NO way I was going to the bathroom stalls. My parents weren’t at home and I had to stay over at school during lunch break. What could I do?
Ah-ah! After lunch break, I moved my little magnet (of a train) from the building corner to the READING CORNER on the big magnet board. All the kids had to move their magnets to whatever corner you wanted to stay in for the rest of the day. Why did I pick the reading corner? Because literally NO ONE ever sat in the lame and boring reading corner. Also, they had a soft couch in the reading corner that was covered in all these cushions. So my plan was to sit there alone, and to just pee straight through my pants onto the cushions without anyone ever noticing. I’d rather do that than to go to those horrible bathroom stalls.
So that’s exactly what I did. Nobody noticed. NOBODY. I pissed straight through my pants, onto the cushions and nobody saw me do it. I just sat there and waited until it dried and spent the rest of the day pretending I enjoyed reading all these books. And that’s how I made it through the day. Man, I love this story…
TLDR: I had to pee during kindergarten but was afraid of the bathroom stalls, so I sneakily pissed my pants on some cushions in the reading corner.
Man, I already love re-reading these memories. I feel glad that I now have a personal timeline journal that contains a lot of memories like this. And it feels great to know that I’ll never ever forget about them because I can re-read them whenever I want. If only I could remember my entire life like this.
Thinking about all these memories like this makes me think, though…
What causes me to forget about my memories in the first place? How can I suddenly remember a memory again? What causes me to suddenly stumble upon one of my long-lost memories?
How to remember memories?
It made me wonder about the following question:
Do we lose memories, or only the ability to access them?
It actually turns out this question hinges on some hotly debated topics in memory research that try to define how and where memory representations are stored in the brain.
At the moment, there is no good, definite, or agreed-upon answer to this question.
Do you lose the ability to remember?
However, the simple answer to this question is that a loss of memory is usually a loss in the ability to access that memory. I’ll give you a scenario that is easy to relate to first.
Let’s say you’re going to the grocery store, and you have five different items to buy, and don’t have a grocery list with you.
If you remember the first three items perfectly but can’t quite remember the last two, do you give up and go home? No, right? You would most definitely walk around the store, hoping something would cue your memory and you would be able to buy what you need. Your memory of the ‘forgotten’ items was not immediately accessible by free recall but would become accessible with better cues.
The science behind accessing memories
Events at the time of memory recollection are very important in determining whether you will be able to produce a certain piece of information. There is a ton of insightful research in this area. There’s an interesting paper by Malthup (1995) that used a ‘false fame’ procedure created by Larry Jacoby.
This procedure involves asking participants to pay attention to a list of made-up, non-famous names. Then after some time (a day, a week, etc.) bring those same people back into the lab and test them on a new list of names that contains some names from the previous list, some new non-famous names, and some names of famous people. Then participants are asked to rate the fame of the names presented. Names that were studied from the previous session, although they are fictitious and not associated with any level of fame, are consistently rated as being more famous than fictitious names presented for the first time at the test.
Older individuals are reliably shown to be worse at this task (i.e. rate studied names as famous more often) than younger individuals. Malthup manipulated this task by specifically telling participants the three options for names they will see (i.e. famous names, new non-famous names, and old non-famous names). In this context, older adults performed as well as younger adults.
This is just one example of how memory for certain events can be thought of as ‘lost’ because they are simply inaccessible at the moment, or need to be probed, cued, accessed in a different way.
That’s why it’s important to always be able to write down a memory at the moment you stumble upon it. If you don’t write it down immediately, you will likely forget the memory again within a matter of minutes. The problem is, who knows when you will access that memory again? You may never encounter the right cues again.
How to actually remember the memories of your life?
If you are looking to fill your personal timeline journal as much as possible (as I am), then it’s important to know how to remember those lost memories. Or rather, how to re-access those memories, as they probably still exist in your mind. You just have to find the right cues in order to access them again!
And that’s how to remember lost memories! You need to seek out these cues.
Examples of how to easily remember parts of your life
A few methods to seek out these lost memory cues are to:
- talk to your (grand)parents more often (always a good idea anyway!)
- talk to family and friends about your childhood
- travel back to your hometown
- re-connect to your former classmates
- look through old photo albums
- listen to old music you used to like
- watch your favorite childhood movies, shows, and cartoons
- visit your old school building, the sports club you practiced at or the playground you always hung out on
You might notice that everything on this list has the potential to reignite those long lost memories.
When you ask your parents a simple question like “what was I like when growing up?”, you might hear a story you are already familiar with. But your parents will give you their version of the story, as they have to dig around in their own memory in order to answer you!
Discussing a simple question like this will probably create a lot of lost memory cues, which you can then write down in your memory journal!
As said before, this likely happens because some cue in your environment, or some aspect of a thought you were just having, was connected in some way to the sudden involuntary memory recall that you experience.
However, those cues don’t always seem relevant to the memory itself.
Memories can come out of nowhere
This is something you might be familiar with: a random memory seems to enter your mind, and you don’t know why you suddenly just started thinking about it?! Sounds familiar?
One reason why the memory might not seem relevant is that the cue associated with it may be really subtle, or not very meaningful content-wise. A powerful example of this is when a smell or a sound (like part of a song) is associated in one’s mind with a certain period of time or an event, or even a feeling about an event. This could lead to a neural activation of circuits that represent other events, ideas or feelings from that time.
You see, memories appear to be more organized by emotions, senses, or ideas, rather than the time when they occurred. Scientists also don’t completely understand yet how memories are maintained over time. it could be that infrequently recalled memories are not deliberately discarded by the brain, but instead fade gradually, as if the neurons and synapses involved in representing them are eventually recruited to be part of other memories instead.
Memories can get distorted over time
It’s also been shown that the act of recalling a memory can actually change the information that is stored, conflating things that happened during memory recall with things during that actually happened during the original event. So in that sense, an infrequently recalled memory might possibly be more accurate than a recent one.
This may sound strange, right? How can a memory become more “distorted” when we recall it more often? This is a topic for an entirely different post, to be honest. I’m only really just scratching the surface of scientific research on memories here.
Want to remember your life more? Take more photographs!
Before I end this post, I want to discuss one more method of memorizing your life that I haven’t discussed yet. One of the best tools for memorizing your life – besides journaling – is taking photographs.
Nowadays, with smartphones and cloud storage, it is so easy to just snap a picture of something and to forget about it. With services like Google Photos or the iCloud Photo Library, your photos are instantly backed up to the cloud so you may never lose them again. I absolutely love it. I have made it a habit to make as many photographs as possible.
It doesn’t have to be of anything impressive, I mostly just want to capture the memory. If I’m sitting outside on a beautiful day and notice how pretty my surroundings actually are, I usually just snap a quick picture. Even if it is not a fantastic picture, I will still have captured the memory so that I may never forget it again. I look at my photo library as a different kind of memory journal.
I like to think that 70-year-old me would be very grateful to have so many memories immortalized. I already take pleasure in skipping through my old memories and pictures, so I bet I will like it even more when I’m an old and retired!
And with that said, I want to conclude this list of methods covering how to start remembering all your life memories. I believe these methods can help you create a huuuge memory journal, and I hope this has somehow inspired you to get to it! As always, if you have any questions about anything, please let me know in the comments below, and I’ll be happy to answer you!
Founder of Tracking Happiness and lives in the Netherlands. Ran 5 marathons, with one of them in under 4 hours (3:59:58 to be exact). Data junkie and happiness tracker for over 6 years.