Remember when you were 12, maybe 13, and your mom told you it was time to get rid of your kiddie toys? If you were like me at all, it left you in a panic, and you decided to hide all your precious stuffed animals from your mom’s evil grasp.
Or when you were going off to college for the first time and you made sure to bring the blanket you used as a baby to comfort you when you were homesick?
Or maybe you're still holding onto that bracelet or watch your first serious boyfriend or girlfriend gave you for Christmas all those years ago? (Hey, the jewelry didn't break up with you! No judgment.)
The instinct to protect cherished objects is nothing new in our consumerist age. For centuries people have held onto objects with sentimental value, be they jewelry, childhood toys, or the jacket their grandfather wore to the big game back in ‘65. Some people store their mother's favorite necklace in a big glass case, and others are out driving their father's old car. No matter the object, it's plain to see that we humans attach significant meaning to places, things, and sensations.
Studies have shown that more people would rather save a special heirloom or item than their most expensive laptop or television from a house fire. Associating memories with objects helps us to remember daily tasks and important dates. So what is causing this amazing connection between our memories and objects?
Let’s Get Scientific
According to the most recent psychological research, studies are showing that the part of the brain that stores and recalls memories is possibly the same part that integrates experienced sensations (the smell of a rose, the taste of honey, the feeling of sandpaper). It’s called the retrosplenial cortex, for those of you who want to impress your uncle at the next family dinner.
The retrosplenial cortex is most associated with episodic memory formation - the kind of memory that is sequential and records events in our minds. Because the part of the brain that forms episodic memory is the same part that integrates sensations, memories often become associated with sensations. Sensations make up the world around us - everywhere we go, we are constantly taking in stimuli of all different kinds.
Our brains record this information, but it is often forgotten due to the lack of meaningful events or information these environments give. However, if something important happens to you while you are passing a hot dog stand on your way to work, your brain will associate that memory with the smell of the hot dog stand. Crazy, right? Whether the memory is good or bad, it will likely become triggered by that smell or sensation.
So What About My Favorite Teddy Bear?
Objects hold sentimental meaning when they are involved in important events in our lives. Our brains attach the memory of the event, or the people involved, to whatever object is centered in the event. Let's say your grandmother gave you a teddy bear when you were 8 years old. As you grow up, the teddy bear is pushed back further in your closet until the day you're packing up your room to move out of your parents' house when you stumble upon that familiar furry face.
The sight of the teddy bear along with the feeling of its fur and the same smell it has from years ago bring back memories of your grandmother from those earlier days. Perhaps you recall the day she gave you this bear - it was your older sister's birthday, and she knew you may be jealous to see your sister receiving so many gifts, so she made sure to get a special bear just for you. Seeing the teddy bear and holding it in your arms so many years later brings all those memories back to you in a flash.
This is how objects retain such sentimental value to us. The object is not only special for its ability to recall memories, but because of its attachment to the person who it is associated with. This is why it’s so common for people to get rid of gifts from their exes after they break up - the objects are symbolic of the person who gave them the gift, and to let go of the item is to let go of the person. This is also why it’s so hard to give up childhood toys and the possessions of loved ones who are no longer with us.
Turning Memories Into Art
Everyone has a special object that they’ve kept over the years. That’s what photographer Sandy Suffield noticed, and she decided to create a beautiful work of art displaying cherished objects and their owners from all over. Her blog documents some of the stories, which will make you laugh and cry and remind you of the special moments in your own life.
Her project, called Things & People, perfectly demonstrates the concept of memory attachment to items and places. As Sandy puts it, “The intention is to demonstrate that things are meaningful; unsullied by judgments of being, at best, distracting clutter or, at worst, evidence of unbridled consumption.” The collection of objects with special meaning is something that all of humanity participates in, and it demonstrates the fascinating connection between our brains and our world.
Our memories are so important. As the years go by and we get older, it’s important to hold onto beloved objects, photographs and home movies that document the best moments of our lives spent with loved ones.
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