When you remember something, what is it that you remember?
Do you remember the actual way things looked, like a photograph or video? Or do you remember a description of what happened, like a journal entry?
Memories form a huge part of who we are. They are, after all, your history… all of the events that have led you to where you are today (all of the ones that you can consciously remember, at least).
The way that you remember your past has a huge impact on how you act and react to other people and the world in general. It is often easier to attach emotion to already existing images, whether photographs, a movie, or visual memories, for instance. At the same time, however, the depth of emotion attached is often greater with images generated from words.
It is easy to come up with examples. You are far more likely to feel an emotional reaction to a story about a natural disaster when there is a picture or video of the aftermath. Your connection with a character, or a story in general, however, is likely much greater when you read the book than when you watch the movie.
These are not universally true… the depth of emotion from a picture of your wedding night, or your baby’s first steps, or something similar may be as great or greater than the picture formed from a description of that. You can also easily attach emotion to a story about a parent who lost their child without needing a picture.
These exceptions do more to show the general truth of the rule than they do to contradict it, however.
The two ways of remembering have an impact on the way we think, as well. A person with a visual memory is, in general, considerably more likely to be able to deal with small details well. The person with the verbal memory, on the other hand, likely finds it easier to do a quick analysis of large amounts of information.
Even more than ability, though, the two ways of remembering have a great impact on our preferences. A person with a verbal memory may have plenty of ability to deal with small details… but is highly unlikely to enjoy it. A person with a visual memory may be able to analyze large amounts of information, but not want a job that requires them to do so regularly.
The two forms of memory are not completely exclusive, either. A person with a visual memory can still remember words and descriptions, and a person with a verbal memory can still remember pictures, and even more so, generate pictures from the words they remember to describe whatever it is.
Those of you with a visual memory may want to look closer at the second image in this article to better understand… that is a picture formed entirely from letters. While this is not literally what people with a verbal memory do, it can make the idea a more concrete concept for people who do not remember in words.
The way you tend to remember things is not something that can be changed, though you can explicitly remember specific things in the other manner, if it is important. I have a verbal memory, but I’ll never forget the way my wife’s eyes looked at our wedding, or the sight of my baby a few days old at home, or a few other of the most important moments in my life. I’m certain my wife, who has a visual memory, could name a few things that she will never forget, verbally (though she may have a mental image of the words… I’m not entirely certain).
If you were to attempt to constantly remember things in whichever way is not natural to you, however, it would take so much ongoing mental effort that you would basically be unable to function at a normal level. You would find yourself constantly mentally exhausted.
It is difficult, even when you know that someone thinks and remembers the other way, to truly understand. It is somewhat like a blind person and a deaf person trying to communicate to each other the things around them. The deaf person can try to imagine what sound would, well, sound like, and the blind person can try to guess what things would look like, but the concepts are so foreign that they are likely to be wrong more often than right.
That doesn’t mean that they can’t find a way to communicate, though. It’s just that a large part of the way that one perceives things is missing from the way the other experiences them. That means that things that are perfectly clear to one person may be confusing or completely misinterpreted by the other.
If you understand that the other person thinks and remembers in a way that is actually foreign to you, it can help you to figure out better ways to communicate with them. It can help you to better understand and connect with them. It can even help you to forgive them if you understand that what they did simply didn’t have the same meaning to them that it did to you.
PS – I have not conducted a scientific study, but based on the people I have known, visual memory is more common than verbal memory. This seems, again from the people that I know, to be even more true for women than for men, though men still seem to more commonly have visual memory than verbal.
All of which makes me curious… which way do you remember?