Are Your Memories Indexed By Year?
10:12 AM EST on January 13, 2023
So there was this tweet, from ESPN's Tim MacMahon, about NBA great Jason Kidd recalling his favorite memory of LeBron James, whom he's encountered over the years as an opponent, a teammate, and now as the coach of the Dallas Mavericks:
To me, this seemed self-evidently hilarious. The first sentence primes you for one of those freakishly detailed athlete memories, like LeBron telling you how many times a given jumpshot bounced on the rim in a random regular season game from a decade ago, and then Kidd's answer is comically vague: Ah yes, the famous 2011, who can forget the major event of that year. What seemed like it would be a signal moment of impressive pro-athlete recall turned out—I thought—to be a signal moment of a pro athlete being doofishly blank and uncommunicative, like an Easter Island statue. It seemed like a good joke on MacMahon's part.
But for a handful of my Defector colleagues, Kidd's answer wasn't vague at all: He was referring, obviously, to the 2011 NBA Finals, when, as a player for the Dallas Mavericks, he faced LeBron's Miami Heat, and the Mavs won the championship in part by ruthlessly exploiting weaknesses in LeBron's game. "2011" instantly summoned the whole thing for them; the funny part, which they picked up on immediately, was Kidd calling out such a low and infamous moment from the career of the guy the question had set him up to compliment. Moreover, these coworkers seemed to regard as bizarre, if not somehow disgusting or outright suspicious, my inability to recall any given major sporting event from a year-number prompt.
To me this was absolutely baffling. This is not to say that I have no memories of the Heat-Mavs finals! I remember that series very well. It's just that in my memory it is not at all indexed to the number "2011." If you asked me, before yesterday, to tell you about the time the Heat played the Mavericks in the Finals, the year it happened would not be among the first thousand things I could tell you about it. In fact the absolute only Finals associated with a specific year-number in my memory is 2016, and only because I have encountered, probably 1,000 times, the number 2016 used as shorthand for the most memorable Finals of my lifetime.
The more I thought about it, the more freaked out I got. Apart from landmark life events—family births, the date of my wedding, the year I graduated high school, the year the bunch of us quit Deadspin, that kind of thing—virtually none of my memories are indexed to year-numbers, or age-numbers, or really to anything else. The number of a given year, in the search-bar of my brain, will yield either no results or some extremely poor ones ("One fact I can remember about the year 1998 is that it came after the year 1997"). I remember my elder son, when he was still young enough to pronounce r as w, nervously and adorably giving a little spoken school report on Jackie Robinson's life and importance. I remember what he was wearing and where we were, and if I concentrate I can even sorta recall the stuff he said with some minor detail. If you gave me three minutes and three guesses, maybe I could hit on the year it happened. But also maybe not.
Meanwhile my Defector colleagues, some of them anyway, are out here having conversations about their favorite NBA conference finals series, consisting of nothing but one person naming a year and the other one going "Oh hell yeah, that was so sick." Is that what it's like to have a normal brain, or is that what it's like to have a super-powered mutant one? It'd take a few moments of thinking for me to tell you how old I was in a given year; absolutely anything under the sun could have happened in that year's NBA conference finals if all I have to go on is the number of the year. 2011? Is that the year, ah, somebody exploded on the court? No idea. I remember driving to New York to watch a clinching Finals game between LeBron's Heat and Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs with some Deadspin pals; I remember what it sounded like when a pair of motorcyclists blew past the car at like 120 miles an hour on the outskirts of the city; I remember it hit my ears like an explosion and I can even sort of feel how my heart jumped in my chest at that moment; I could tell you pretty much the exact spot on the floor where, a little while later, LeBron took and made the jump shot that effectively ended the series. I have no fucking idea what year that was.
And so now I am curious, and rather feverishly so. Does your brain index memories by year? When you recall some memorable day from your life, do you also recall what year it was? If so, how did you make that association in your mind? Were you sitting there going, "OK, it's 2014 right now, gotta make sure I remember that part"? Are you at all times just date-stamping everything that happens, as it passes into your memory? Is that what normal people do?
And if you do not index your memories that way, then how are your memories organized for recall? Are they organized? Or are they like mine, and not organized in any way at all, but rather just sort of swirling around like water in a vortex in a toilet bowl? Does your mind-palace have the Dewey decimal system? Mine is like an F5 tornado just flattened the library. My gray matter is like somebody jammed an immersion blender into a bowl of Jello. The brain of me is torn up and full of holes.