My friend Sunny is an outgoing, articulate, and thoroughly engaged with the world around her. She lives abroad with her family, and when I visited her over the summer, she asked me to bring one thing from the United States: candy corn.
Sunny is twelve and left the United States when she was three years old. Yet she remembers candy corn from her days as a preschool student, when teachers would dole it out piece by piece as a special treat. Although she has been around the world and has visited the United States from time to time, she hadn’t tasted it since those early years.
Memories are funny things. What we think of as memory—a recollection of something we’ve experienced—is only one facet of what our brains hold on to. Think of the brain as a repository for all of the sensory information that we take in. Every smell, sight, taste, sound, touch, each thought or experience that we reduce to a narrative is held in the brain, and although we may not be able to access that memory, that doesn’t negate its existence.
I personally believe that pre-verbal memories, or even memories that were encoded after we learned to talk but before we had words for what we wanted to say, are particularly powerful. Because words lead to a narrative, and repetition of a narrative can dilute its power, pre-verbal memories, which are encoded in areas of the brain that are experiential rather than logical, don’t evolve and dilute themselves as easily. I was three years old when I first remember eating toast. My dad made it for me when we were at a beach cottage and I cried when I finished it because I didn’t know what it was or how to ask for it again. I remember the joy of loving how it tasted and the frustration of not being able to ask for it. I remember how dark the kitchen was (wood paneling in the late 1960s?) and how hot it was when we went outside.
For Sunny, candy corn was more than just the taste. It was the excitement of a reward, the experience of independence, maybe even a sense of security and love that she felt from her teachers and her classmates at such a young age. When Sunny opened the first package of candy corn I gave her (I brought eight packages, which was probably a good idea given her rate of consumption and her generosity) and tasted a piece, her face lit up. “It tastes just the way I remembered!” she exclaimed. And I’m guessing that it wasn’t just that taste of the candy corn but the recollection of the circumstances surrounding it that made her smile even brighter.