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You are meeting a friend for dinner at your favorite local tapas restaurant. You arrive early and tuck in with a glass of sangria. As you sip your fruity beverage and peruse the menu, you casually begin to listen in on a conversation taking place behind you. Three middle-aged women have obviously had a few sangria of their own and are talking loudly and laughing uproariously. They are discussing a shared memory of a spring break trip they took in their early 20s, lingering on their adventures and mishaps.
What is curious to you is the story is evidently quite old news to all three of them — they are not telling the story for a naive audience. They appear to be telling the story, well, simply to tell the story. For the pleasure of reliving those moments.
What is also curious is how they seamlessly and seemingly unconsciously toss the conversational baton from one to each other, finishing each other’s sentences, interrupting each other to tell a particularly juicy bit, teasing and giggling and remembering.
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This revisiting beloved memories is one of the true joys of intimate relationships, a way of harmonizing with our loved ones and of feeling secure in our understanding of the world: remember you said this, and then I felt that, and then he did this other thing. We were together, we view the world from the same vantage point. We are anchored, rooted, in a shared past.
Of course, we don’t do this only for happy memories. My friends will never let me forget the horrifying time I ruined one of my best friend’s Halloween bachelorette party by fainting dead away at a gory burlesque show—meaning our next stop was the emergency room rather than a nightclub.
Even arguments, tread over and over, can become almost rewarding in their reassuring patterns. A character in Emily St. John Mandel’s luminous novel Station Eleven reflects: “the… argument had lots all of its sting over the years and had become something like a familiar room where they met.”
In just one example of our collective memories, an innovative brain-imaging study out of Princeton University asked 17 adults to watch an episode of BBC’s show Sherlock while in the scanner. After watching but still while in the scanner, the participants were asked to verbally describe the show, much as one would having just watched with a friend. The researchers compared how similar (or different) people’s brain activation was when they were viewing and when they were remembering the various scenes of the television show.
Remarkably, people’s brain activation when retelling the events of the episode was more similar to someone else retelling the story than it was to their own brain activation when they first experienced Sherlock and Watson’s antics. The lead researcher, Janice Chen, was surprised at the degree of similarity across brains: “Even though every person used their own words to describe a given movie scene, we could still see that the distinct fingerprint of activity was similar between brains.”
Research is accumulating that suggests that we human beings operate more like honeybees in a hive than we do separate, autonomous units.