I did the spelling bee thing as a kid. I was good, too. Seventh and eighth grade I made it to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. I was on ESPN and everything.
It’s been a long time. I don’t remember much of the sightseeing or the newspaper interviews. I’ve forgotten most of the words I spelled.
One thing I do remember clearly, fourteen years later, is getting yelled at by a Bee official for running around at some party, chasing another kid as part of whatever game we were playing.
Isn’t it weird what sticks in your brain?
I’ve done a lot of reading on psychology. Apparently, the memories that get saved long-term are the ones tied to emotions. The stronger the emotion, the clearer the memory. (I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but then, psychology always is.)
You see, I was one of those kids who always had a fragile ego. I needed to be told I was good. I needed to get good grades, to win awards. I wilted under criticism. Something I still struggle with today.
So getting yelled at – by an adult, no less – was emotional. It stuck in my brain like shrapnel. The homunculus upstairs decided this moment, this memory, must be preserved inside me for all time. I expect it’ll be there when I die.
In theory, this “strong feelings” system of memory storage makes sense. If something causes you to feel really good or really bad, that’s probably worth remembering, so you can seek/avoid it next time.
In practice, though, especially if you’re an anxious sort of person, you end up with a personal catalog of your own awkwardness and minor failings. Thanks, brain.
I have a lot of good memories too, of course. From the spelling bees, and from life. I’m not totally neurotic, thank you very much.
Still, it’s a strange thing, isn’t it?
What pieces of memory are still lodged in your skull, years or decades later?