A very small percentage of people (~2%) is born with extremely good autobiographic memory: they remember every student in their class and every event of their life. Yesterday I met some classmates whom I have not seen for 26 years. Some things remained the same, but one thing that changes was my perception of childhood. Some stories that I told myself were wrong, and the reality was probably better and greater than the images I kept in my mind. If I had better memory back than, I am sure my life would look finer and more complete in my own eyes. Fortunately this is something we can easily train. Visualizing history is relatively very easy, moreover the skill is useful to remember situations from our own life.
- Generate placeholder events. When visualizing history, we start from some clear and strong images. I was 4 years old when my father took a huge history book and told me a story about war elephants of Hannibal charging through Roman legions. The image was in full colour, it was dynamic and colourful and it draw my breath away. This image generated in my mind the concept of Romans – disciplined soldiers and engineers who did not flee in face of charging behemoth. Then my father opened an image of 300 Spartans fighting off the mighty Persian army under Thermopylae. The imagery of extreme (romanticized and not historically correct) heroism was sufficient to fill my young mind with placeholders for great nations and great events. This is a very important step: it is very hard to generate any historical understanding without objects, events and personalities that draw our attention and serve as anchors for later retrieval of information.
- Position placeholder events on a timeline.
While my imagination was full with lively imagery of mindblowing events, these events made very little sense. I could not even tell which event predated other events. So when I was ~9 years old I started to learn history in school. I was presented with a linear timeline of various civilizations replacing one other. While other kids were seeing a timeline of unknown civilization with whom they could not relate, I have seen almost a comics made of familiar and exciting images, but this time with correctly placed timeline.
- From events to people and cultures. When I was 12 years old I could easily imagine not only various great historical events, but also the civilizations driving them. I asked myself: which civilizations coexisted, how the values of each civilization developed with the time, what where the main accomplishment of each civilization, how these civilizations competed and solved their conflicts. To visualize all this stuff I still used events. For each events I knew the participating parties. I read enough fictional biographies to visualize everyday life of someone in each of interesting civilizations, and understand the simplified representation of motives of the great monarchs and philosophers, artists and zealots. The information trees rising from various events interleaved with each other, filling in the imaginative history. I could easily daydream for hours travelling between various historical events.
- From myth to facts. Some events still did not make any sense in my mind. The numbers simply did not add up. So when I was 24 years old, I revisited everything I knew about history. I was amazed to find out that nothing of what I knew was accurate. The imagery that occupied my imagination when I was a kid was more a historical propaganda than something actually effective. Elephants were not very efficient against legions and were used as psychological weapon. 300 Spartans were supported by 10000 Greek warriors from other states. The civilizations and cultures did not simply replace each other, they coexisted and diffused in strange and wonderful ways. There was no one timeline and no one key personality, but an intricate tapestry of interleaving motives, people, events… In fact I had no chance to remember all this information without the original simplified history, but the simplified history had no hold in reality without the actual factual base behind it.
- Re-evaluation and acceptance. Myth is a strong driving force. We make many stupid decisions because we do not have a full picture, yet we always act upon partial understanding. As the factual base growth, we understand how inadequate our original responses were. It is probably best just to accept the past and learn to love it in all its imperfections. From time to time we need to re-evaluate our positions, so that we do not make the same mistakes, but we will probably make many new ones. Acceptance is very important, since it clears up our minds and open us to new fact and new understandings that may disagree with how we perceived the reality.
My personal history has also been revised time after time. I meet people whom I did not meet for along time and ask them about their lives and motives. Now I can formulate questions I could not formulate when I was younger. To my amazement the way I understood the world around me was very different from how the people around perceived the reality. Moreover, the way I remember myself and my actions is sometimes just the opposite of what other people tell me. Just as the world history is rewritten and mystified, our own history is reviewed and revised time after time. Memorization allows us to keep as many facts as possible, and this not to reduce our lives to myth. By keeping as many details, anchors and markers as we can, we can limit amount of distortion the memory plays on our mind. Autobiographic memory plays tricks with us. We cannot remember things in all their complexity and are forced to re-evaluate the past time after time. Acceptance and being open to learning and new re-evaluations is probably still better than stubbornly repeating the same mistakes.