Memories - the true archives of History
The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living – Cicero (106 – 43 BC)
What are your earliest memories? What are they about? Are you three or four years old? Are you on holiday by the seaside, with a grandparent, long passed? Or at school? We all have memories of childhood, some bad, mostly good, I hope. Mine are. Our memories are our sense of self, the who, the what, the why and the when. Without memories we would never pass exams at school, we’d forget friends' birthdays, family events, we wouldn’t be popular! And we wouldn’t know who we are.
We have different kinds of memory, long term, short term. Our memory works in very odd ways. We have a momentary memory – that ability to look at your watch, process what it means to you, and then have to look five seconds later when someone asks for the time. And yet we can still recall moments, textures, sounds and smells from the very beginning of our lives, which for some of us are longer ago than others. I walk into a room and forget why I was there, yet I can recall the moment at two years of age that I dropped a cup of scalding coffee down my front.
But what are memories? Where are they collected and stored? In our heads, yes, in our brains. In the limbic system, our mammalian brain near the olfactory lobe, linking memory and smell and emotion so very closely, and all controlled by the neocortex. But is that all?
Doctors don’t actually understand memory. They can say that here and here are where in the brain memory is stored, but they cannot say for certain. In some people memories have been lost due to damage to the brain material through injury of one kind of another and when other parts of the brain are stimulated, parts that are not thought to have anything to do with memory storage, memories return. So if memories can be stored in possibly an infinite number of places in the brain, why not other parts of the body?
OK – this sounds a bit weird, but let’s think about this. The blueprint for everything we are, hair colour, eye colour, height, weight, every detail, is DNA. And if we are our memories, why could DNA not store memory?
|Tybalt and Mercutio face up in |
Romeo and Juliet, photo by
Dee Conway for ROH
People talk of collective memory, a group of people, communities, nations, who all feel the same way, act the same way under a given set of circumstances. Is that passed on in DNA through families? Is this why some family feuds won’t die, the Capulets and the Montagues? Could long-held prejudices also be passed down, through this collective DNA memory - the age-old dislike that persists between the French and English? How often have you heard the phrase ‘It’s in our DNA’?
When we have children they have DNA from both the mother and the father. That could mean that every child has a collection of memories passed on through both sides of their family. Everything that ever was in that bloodline is distilled into each child, and they in turn pass that on.
Now, I’m not talking about solid exam-passing memory here, but the fleeting kind, the dream that leaves little more than a feeling and sense of maybe what was. It makes sense that this memory, this feeling, could direct our actions, our likes, dislikes, career choices. It could be that someone who loves Romans had an ancestor who had a really good life as a Roman and the memory that persists from then is stronger for it and lingers. It could therefore be that someone who has no particular liking for history but maybe science, may find an ancestor for whom science was a passion, or who liked to understand how the world works. The setting was not important, only the substance.
But if we DO carry memory in the DNA, doesn’t this explain past life regression? We haven’t ‘lived’ before, we are recalling lives lived in the past, the details of which are merely more vividly recalled. Just as sometimes that dream doesn’t fade but remains as clear as a movie, in glorious Technicolor and surround sound.
|William the Conqueror, medieval |
Marmite - love him or hate him?
For us history people it could explain why some people are passionate about certain eras and with a certain lack of logic, loathe certain people from history. Maybe someone who hates William the Conqueror has an ancestor who faced him at Hastings. Or someone who adores King John had a relative who was on the receiving end of his lesser known but equally powerful generosity.
Take me – from family legend and my family name, we came from Brittany and first came to England in 1066 in the company of Count Alan. If this is the case then it is pretty fair to say that until we left to travel to war, we lived in Brittany and probably didn’t stray too far, meaning that we would have always have been Bretons. Which could take us as far back as the era of Vercingetorix. And if an ancestor had lived through that rebellion, that would be a perfect cause for hating the Romans, and yet maybe loving the beauty of Rome the city, a place that would be an unimaginable futuristic fantasy for a rural Breton captured and brought to Rome. Such traumatic and pivotal events would leave a trace. And if the men of the family did cross to England with Count Alan, chances are they were excited about going on an adventure, relieved to have won against the barbaric Anglo Saxons, delighted to receive rewards from their master, all good reasons to feel pleased with themselves.
|A gallant King Edward III|
And all this may explain why I was utterly enthralled when I began to investigate the king who fought and won at Crécy. Did an ancestor know Edward III? Did they fight on the Crécy campaign under his command, a sailor at Sluys maybe, or merely an admiring lady at whom he may once have bestowed a fleeting smile that meant little to him, and all to her? (Perhaps this explains my intense distaste for Alice Perrers). Maybe it is merely because, as Dr Ian Mortimer holds, if you can trace your family back to England before the steam train allowed widespread travel options and migration around the country, you are around 80 - 95% likely to be a descendant of Edward III. That is a beguiling thought.
We don’t have strong feelings for all eras and times, just some - a love of Anglo Saxons, and a detestation of Victorians, but maybe Queen Anne leaves us feeling, well, nothing really. And I would like to hypothesise that the reason for this is that, as we do in our own lives, we forget the boring and uneventful, and recall just one or two, maybe three major events from the past which were memorable, for good or bad reasons. We may be predisposed as humans to forget pain – and thus allow us ladies to have more than one child – but the fear is there, and that is not forgotten. But the mundane, the average, the tedious, that passes quickly from memory and we dwell either on the very bad or the good. And so it may be with DNA memory.
|Queen, err, who? Oh, |
Another aspect to this subject to consider is instinct. Instinct is passed on from mother to child, and that must be housed in DNA. Instinct tells the heart to start beating. Instinct tells a baby to breathe when it is born. Instinct tells a calf it has to stand shortly after. No one teaches this behaviour, it is natural, and through evolution, passed from one animal on to the next and to the next. Instinct comes from a behaviour that was exhibited by one animal that gave it an advantage over another and was thus passed on because that animal survived, when the other did not. That is evolution. And so is instinct, therefore, any more than a memory? And if instinct is stored in DNA (how else can any animal act before it can communicate?) why then should not memories of the lives, loves, likes and dislikes, of our ancestors also be encapsulated in DNA?
But, I hear you cry, why don’t we have identical feelings on subjects to our parents and our siblings, cousins, aunts? If we share a collective memory, why do we not feel the same way? Well, one explanation is that we all remember things differently – you can ask ten people who saw the same event what they saw and get ten differing versions. We each have a personality and we each will place more or less weight on different things. And maybe we treasure different memories, value different aspects of it. Maybe our upbringing influences what we recall, what we pay attention to and what we ignore.
Until scientists can pinpoint exactly where in our bodies we store memories, the theory that it is stored in our DNA can’t be disproved. And if instinct can direct our actions so forcefully, why cannot these other DNA memories make us like, love or loathe?
Now, where did I leave my crown?