Non-Narrative Elements of Memory, OR: Why I Don’t Dress Up Like Superman Anymore

I self-reflect often. For one thing, it’s a good practice to be in for personal and emotional well-being, but for another, I encourage others to do the same during Self Narrate presentations. I’m not going to suggest others do something that I am not doing myself! When I self reflect, I focus on memories that define my story. I focus on those remembered events that make me who I am. But then, all of a sudden, a random memory will pop into my head, much like the TripleDent Gum music from Inside Out. I was recently thinking about my experiences starting a business this year and then the memory of getting stuck upside down on playground equipment at night while dressed like Superman popped into my mind. (College, amiright?) Even if starting a business can feel at times like getting your foot stuck in a jungle gym, the experience doesn’t have a connection to my personal story. So why did that memory linger?

 Circa 2007, not one of my proudest moments

Circa 2007, not one of my proudest moments

It almost goes without saying that autobiographical memories have narrative dimensions to them. This is why we typically describe our memories through  the telling of stories. Memories also carry non-narrative elements, which can contribute to why they resonate with us in different ways. According to a study by researchers Michael Mackay and Susan Bluck, the following non-narrative elements have been examined:

  • Vividness
  • Importance
  • Memorability
  • Intensity
  • Emotional Valence
  • Extent of Private and Social Rehearsal

In this case, the memory of hanging upside-down and needing the help of four friends simultaneously to free me is a memory that checks off at least four of these elements: vividness, memorable, intensity & social rehearsal.

Mackay and Bluck suggest that “non-narrative characteristics are integral to the sense of experiencing and reliving of autobiographical memories.” When we self-reflect, we should take a moment and consider these seemingly unrelated memories. Ask yourself, “why is my memory taking me back to this particular place in my life?” There is likely something in that memory that is worth reflecting on. It may illuminate a life lesson that you learned. In my case, I can look at this experience as a turning point. I learned a lesson that night that I’ve stuck to ever since: adults shouldn’t play on playground equipment at night, and leave the Superman costume for Halloween.