If I die how I’d like to, how everyone’s meant to, lying in bed surrounded by my loved ones, a well-lived life behind me, my faculties intact but my step into the next realm inevitable, a sad occasion but one with no regret, where gratitude and love outweigh everything else, my final thoughts won’t be about how lucky I’ve been. I’ll be reliving the time a waiter brought me my dinner and said “Enjoy your meal” and I replied: “Thanks, you too!”
He didn’t have a meal, I’ll think. I was the only one out of the two of us that had a meal. There was no meal for him to enjoy. I should have just said thanks. Why didn’t I just say thanks? Stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid. Still, at least death’s finally shown up!
It happens a lot, cringeworthy memories from the past popping up at seemingly arbitrary times. I’ll be sitting there getting a haircut and be somehow reminded of the time I called my teacher mummy, or flash back to the many occasions where someone’s wished me a happy birthday and I’ve cheerfully replied “Happy birthday!” as though it worked the same way as “Hello”.
Sometimes it happens in a moment that should be nothing but happy. “Had a baby, have you, idiot?” says my subconscious. “Hey, remember when you went on a night out wearing a bandana because for some reason you thought that was a good idea, and just before you got to the pub you had a moment of realisation that you looked so, so bad, and you took it off but you had quite a lot of hair at the time and it was plastered to your head and you felt so self-conscious that you just went home and played Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy?”
But most of the time it just feels slightly random, an awkward memory from a decade ago, plucked out of somewhere deep within my brain and surfaced for no apparent reason. A brief mental glitch. I did a really rubbish fake dizzy fall once after making people watch me spin around on an office chair, because I thought it would make them laugh, but it didn’t, and thinking about it makes me want to get back in that chair and roll into some sort of ink-black chasm from which nothing returns, not light, not memory, not anything. Occasionally it feels like the inside of my head is one of those 20p claw machines in a seaside amusement arcade, but with 34 years of mistakes, embarrassment and awkwardness in place of a pile of cuddly Minions.
I once tore a voucher for a free McDonald’s burger out of the paper, took it into a branch and presented it to the man behind the counter. He looked at me like I was some sort of oddball, and I realised that it wasn’t a voucher, it wasn’t for a free burger and it wasn’t for McDonald’s. It was an advert for Burger King’s new chicken sandwich. Everything I could possibly get wrong, I’d got wrong. I also didn’t have any money so couldn’t buy a burger, so just grinned unconvincingly, went red and slinked out of the shop like some kind of simple prick.
Now, realistically, it’s really unlikely the McDonald’s employee to whom I presented an advert for another burger shop’s burgers has ever thought about that again. But I have! Hoo boy, I have! Every time I’m in a McDonald’s or Burger King or see a newspaper or meet someone who’s ever read one, there it comes, flowing back, that feeling of sheer idiocy.
I’d understand it if these were genuinely terrible memories, properly traumatic events from my life, but they’re not. Rather than things that leave me consumed with guilt or fear, they’re silly little moments where I’ve just been a bit sort of rubbish. That McDonald’s incident is the gentlest anecdote ever, the most whimsical, undamaging thing that could ever occur. So why has it stuck around?
These poppings-up are known as ‘involuntary autobiographical memories’, described by the British Psychological Society as “occurring without any deliberate attempt at retrieval and often during undemanding everyday activities”.
Professor Dorthe Berntsen of Aarhus University is one of the world’s foremost experts on IAMs, studying them since the 1990s. “Involuntary autobiographical memories spontaneously arise because we need a flexible memory system that is responsive to the ongoing situation,” she says. “Involuntary memories occur typically when there is a distinctive feature overlap with the ongoing situation.”
This overlap might be an emotion, but will more frequently be either an external cue or a mixture of both internal and external cues - something, anything, reminds you in some way of something that’s happened before, however loosely, and there it is. “A feeling of embarrassment in a specific social situation might remind you of a similar situation in the past where you also felt embarrassment” says Professor Berntsen.
Essentially, your memory is trying to help when it dredges these things up. It’s a survival thing. It’s looking at every element of your situation and scraping through its archives to try and find something there which has some relevance. It just so happens that, a lot of the time, what they find suuuuuucks. Someone walks past you wearing a red anorak, and somehow you’re reminded of that time a horse looked at you funny and you cried.
“Due to their associative and unplanned retrieval, involuntary memories are often more specific, less relevant to life story and identity and involve more emotional reaction at the time of recall,” she says, which seems like a very clever way of saying that sometimes they’ll feel like they’ve come up completely out of the blue and can really upset you, so instead of sitting there not doing anything, you’re sitting there reliving the time you farted at a wedding and are fairly sure the bride heard. “However, they are not more negative (or less positive) than memories we retrieve strategically.”
They tend to come up when you’re unfocused or performing non-demanding tasks, so, if they’re giving you a hard time, keeping yourself busy seems to be the answer. The thing is, that seems like it could go wrong incredibly easily - avoiding an IAM-heavy situation like sitting in a barbers’ chair by cutting my own hair doesn’t seem likely to reduce the amount of awkwardness in my life.
Maybe… maybe life just is hideously awkward, a series of 6/10 decisions, mistimed jokes and regrettable mistakes, eventually ending on a bed, surrounded by loved ones, wheezing out my final words:
“Thanks, I will enjoy my meal.”