Time Travel: Or, A Phenomenological Demonstration of Context-Dependent Memory

A journal entry from some time ago.  First I should note that my mother and I share an inherited autoimmune blood-clotting disorder which can lead to mini-strokes.  My husband is a little paranoid about any memory lapse or other cognitive oddity on my part.

The other day–the day of the BYU Homecoming Game–I learned how disorienting time-travel can be.  I had been slightly ill for a few days, and had a rare Saturday appointment in my office which I had completely forgotten while working in the garden, and I arrived apologetic and flustered 30 minutes late.  The parking lot was empty on a Saturday, the building dark and eerie.  The temporal displacement was small–from weekday office to weekend office–but it was only the first of many that day.

Next, with The Game still on and a crowded parking lot at the Richards Building, my husband John the English Professor and I went swimming in the otherwise empty BYU pool.  Two or three years ago we were in the healthy habit of swimming twice a week, but have not been at all for at least a year.  So a year-plus temporal displacement.

After swimming, we climbed the hill on the stairs between the Richards Building and the Smith Fieldhouse.  I probably haven’t climbed those particular stairs since taking a swim class at the end of my undergraduate studies at BYU more than 30 years ago.  Temporal displacement number three–32 years.

Then we went to a film at the International Cinema, on the main floor of the Kimball Tower.  There I took many of my graduate psych classes 20 years ago, and there I completed my predoctoral internship at the Counseling Center in ’95-’96.  Time-travel number four.

The movie was interesting–the French film “Orpheus” from 1950–another temporal displacement (but one that probably shouldn’t count).

I was OK until then.  From the time we came out of the building, through eating dinner together at the “Legends” sports bar (on campus, non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated) where I wandered down dim and empty hallways looking for the restroom, until I went to bed last night, I was extremely disoriented.

Part of it might have been the strangely empty campus.  Some of it was the sense of dissociation that one can feel while recovering from an illness.  But whatever caused it, John had more and more of that skittish, scared look in his eyes as he asked me about things he or I had said or done earlier in the day, and l didn’t remember.

What I did feel was the echo of memories, preoccupations, and worries that faded as I tried to pin them down.  It was like awakening slowly and remembering that I had dreamt, but being unable to catch the dreaming images.  They faded to nothing as I strained after them.  It was like being in a house with transparent walls that become translucent, then opaque, then solid.  It was like hearing sounds and voices loudly nearby, and then the voices diminish to faintness and silence.  It was a sense of having just forgotten what I was thinking about.  When I tried to grasp it, it slipped through my fingers.

So I have two choices.  Either I was experiencing the aftereffects of some kind of cerebral-vascular event (mini-stroke) or I was experiencing time-travel.  Or to be more specific, I was experiencing a form of context-dependent memory, where my recollections of preoccupations and concerns from one to 30 years ago were evoked because I was again in the places I first had them.

It was very weird.  I didn’t have any other symptoms indicative of a stroke, such as motor or visual or language problems.

On the other hand, maybe John is gas lighting me.

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