Last night I dreamt that I’ve been dating am 18-year-old high school senior for several months. This was apparently a very scandalous romance - in addition to the 16-year age difference this girl was apparently a friend of the family (who, in real life, doesn’t exist). It was a very vivid dream - I was arguing with relatives and sneaking around. In the dream, I kept recalling these memories of two or three months back - things my dad “said” or looks my mom “gave” and these memories felt real and distant.
The dream was so vivid that when I woke up I first said, “It’s just a dream. I’m not dating an 18-year-old.” I then asked myself, “Then who am I dating?” It took a good minute to realize that I was lying in bed with my wife of three years, who I’ve been with for thirteen years. This dream was so real and vivid and filled with complicated memories that, for a moment, it felt as if it completely wiped-out the past thirteen years of my life. And that’s pretty scary.
I then thought, “This must be a recurring dream, and the memories I had in the dream were from past dreams.” But even that didn’t make sense - this dream was scandolous and I don’t recall a single morning where I woke up and thought about this dream at all - I really do believe this is the first time I had this dream and part of the dream was deep-rooted memories that didn’t exist - they were constructed or recalled in such a way that they felt like long-term memories. That is some Inception-level mind messing right there.
And then, of course, I started to wonder how time was encoded in memories, anyway. My understanding of memory is that it’s a replay in the synapses of how you experienced a moment. The sights and smells and feel of a thing constructed by impulses in the brain. But time isn’t something we really sense - it’s something we experience and apply logic to but via queues like sun position, darkness, biological changes throughout the day, etc. We get really excited when someone asks us what time it is and we say, “Probably around 1:25,” and we look and it’s 1:26 and we say, “YES!” because we were able to process all of the queues and come to a logical conclusion as to how much time has passed since the last time we checked the time.
And then I started thinking about how we recall the time associated with a memory. It’s always something like, “Well I know I was in High School because this happened in the auditorium and I was wearing my Breeders shirt that I got at Lollapalooza my sophomore year so it was at least…what…1994? Probably the fall since the concert was in the summer…” And so on, and so on. As we put these queues back to together we deduce the time, but time isn’t inherent in the memory. With the exception of short-term vague stuff like “yesterday” or “last week” it’s very rare that I can just say, “That happened in May of 2001,” without reassembling the queues.
So, to me, it seems like memory is completely detached from time, and therefor long-term memories can be inserted into our dreams and feel like they’re from long ago, especially if we go through the familiar process of reassembling our queues to recall them.
And this all happened at 4AM, and then I went back to bed.