I try not to be a sentimental person. I try not to attribute emotions to inanimate objects. However, the sight of a lost child’s toy lying alone in the street does make me sad, as does a lone glove, or a deformed umbrella that has failed in it’s battle against the weather (but only if I’m feeling particularly emotional).
A couple of years ago I got burgled. As I walked home from work I did not suspect that I might have been burgled, but was instead thinking about making risotto for dinner and whether I should stop and get a bottle of wine en route. When I got home the door was locked as per usual (they got in through a double glazed window) and I discovered a whole lot of my belongings had been taken. It was a genuinely horribly violating feeling knowing that some horrible people had got into my home and had rummaged through my personal belongings and taken what they wanted.
I had insurance though so items were replaced and it was mostly just the annoyance of having to cancel my cards and wait for the cheque to arrive so I could buy things. Although they stole a lot of my electrical items (laptop / playstation / camera etc) the thing that annoyed me the most was they took all my jewellery. I’ve never been one for expensive precious jewellery, I have very particular tastes and nor do I wear very much. Mostly because I find it flappy and annoying, and most necklaces make a beeline for my cleavage and require fishing out all the time.
I was upset the most that they took the silver rings I had collected while I was traveling. Each of those rings came from somewhere that I had visited and were the ideal souvenir of my travels – didn’t take up space in my luggage, attractive, personal. They were attributed to a place, not a person. They acted as cues for a memory, a time, a place and a feeling. I could tell you that the silver garnet one came from a flea market in Ueno Park in Japan, that the amethyst one was from the market on Las Ramblas in Barcelona, and an onyx one from a stall by Charles Bridge in Prague. These items were more than just possessions, they were a tiny captured memory that I could hold with me.
Memory cues can facilitate recall when there is a strong link between two pieces of information. Cues are thought to be most effective when two items have a strong, complex associative link. I could look down at my hand when I was wearing one of my rings and be transported to Japan during cherry blossom season, in an urban Tokyo park in spring, feeling awkwardly touristy yet delighted that I had found a gorgeous ring that fitted my left middle finger perfectly.
Cues can facilitate recovery of memories that have been “lost”, acting as a prompt to retrieve a memory that may be buried. A cue might be an object or scene and the events occurring become intricately linked. Our memories become integral to our sense of self, telling us who you are, where you’ve been and what you’ve experienced.
However, diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease gradually takes the memories that make up a person’s past and sense of self. I am a firm believer that our memories are “imprints” in our brains that can control our emotions, behaviour and decision making in choice situations. These imprints can become strengthened (through frequent recall) or weakened through “forgetting”, replacement with a new, more relevant memory or a physical deterioration. Dementia is cruel as it results in a gradual loss of self that impacts not just upon the sufferer, but to their families. However, memory cues such as photos and certain objects can build a tangible repository by which “lost” memories could be retrieved by acting as prompts. A memory that cannot be simply “recalled” could be recovered by prompts that aid recognition, that can act as a gateway to the memory.
It is understandable that items can have painful memories attributed to them. Gifts from failed relationships can evoke pinging feelings of sadness in the same way that the sight of a jaegerbomb can turn my stomach after a nasty hangover. The previously positive memories attributed to the items can become overwritten with a strong negative emotion, much in the way that memory reconsolidation is aimed to change an existing memory.
Either way, I find it fascinating how an inanimate object can stir such memories and how we attribute such distinct emotions to items.