I just read a really fun description of memories in a Nautilus post: The pasta theory of memory & your personal beginning of time. It’s a post on childhood amnesia, the frustrating phenomenon that we just don’t remember much from the earliest part of our lives.
The piece is written by Dana Mackenzie, but the rich title inspiration comes from an Emory University psychologist that he interviewed, Patricia Bauer. Here’s how Bauer describes children’s memory:
“I compare memory to a colander,” Bauer says. “If you’re cooking fettucine, the pasta stays in. But if you’re cooking orzo, it goes right through the holes. The immature brain is a lot like a colander with big holes, and the little memories are like the orzo. As you get older, you’re either getting bigger pasta or a net with smaller holes.”
Why do I like this metaphor? It paints a nice picture of what happens. Kids still make memories, but those memories tend to escape. Older people’s memories are more likely to be contained by the colander brain.
This metaphor is compelling, but is it the best thing since sliced bread? Pasta easily trumps bread on my carbs hierarchy, but what about in the context of describing memory? Importantly, it demonstrates that children retain fewer memories than adults (which we probably don’t need much convincing of), but it doesn’t tell us why this is so. Why are children’s memories orzo-like, and how to do they become fettucine-like over time? There’s a lot about this process that scientists still don’t know, but the metaphor can’t capture those things they actually do know. For example, Mackenzie acknowledges in the piece, when we retell a memory, we increase our chances of remembering that event later (though retelling memories also introduces inaccuracies that seem to increase the more we retell…). A similar issue with the metaphor is that our brains are constantly changing, and a large part of the reason that kids don’t remember as much as adults do results from that dynamic property. But colanders don’t change as they age, so the pasta metaphor might make it less evident that the massive changes that take place in our brains underlie many of the memory differences throughout our lives.
Metaphors highlight some things – they play up certain features of the two things they’re comparing, and they downplay others. It’s probably not possible to accurately capture every important aspect of a phenomenon like childhood amnesia in one metaphor. And that’s ok, because metaphors can be supplemented by other information. But metaphors don’t only leave out relevant details. They can also mislead, as I think the static colander has the potential to do. Maybe the best way, then, to communicate the complexity of childhood amnesia is to remind ourselves (and those we’re communicating with) that although some features of children’s forgetting and orzo pasta do map onto each other well, other features, like the colander, fall short – at least until we design one that develops in a brain-like way over the course of its lifespan.