Little Girl in Democratic Republic of Congo

Children We Met, but Can’t Forget

I remember the little girl in the blue dress. She was covered in tiny bumps. She waited in line to see the doctor and when it was her turn, he carefully examined her skin. He told us she slept in a soiled bed where a legion of bugs attacked her each night. The little girl was so desperate for human contact that she held onto the doctor’s leg and wouldn’t let go.

I only spent a few hours with her but I remember the little girl exactly. Why does this memory stick with me and not others? Do I remember her because she made me sad? Do I remember her because she was emblematic of Haiti’s orphanages? Or do I remember her because I took her photo?

As baby boomers age, scientists are working harder than ever to crack the code on memory. Humanitarians can benefit from this research. After working in crises, aid workers often describe themselves as being “haunted” by certain images. I spoke with gerontologist and memory expert Mara Mather to understand why some memories are “stickier” than others.

The Science of Memory

Professor Mather teaches gerontology, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. Memory, she says, is impacted by lots of different factors. But at the top of the list, the most significant element is: Who am I? What do I bring to my own experience of the world?

Check Out this Infographic: What Causes Strong Memories?

In my case, I love kids so I tend to tune into them. I also photograph people, making me aware of them for professional reasons. Our priorities in life and in any given moment can dictate what becomes a lasting memory. The theory makes intuitive sense. But Mather’s research has gone one step further in showing the chemical reactions at play.

Inside the brain, neurons use the chemical glutamate to exchange messages. A lot of glutamate in a particular region of the brain triggers the hormone norepinephrine to be released to that region. If there’s less glutamate, then less norepinephrine will be released.

The brain is naturally marking what’s important,” Mather says. “Then emotional arousal comes along and amplifies that.

The Winner-Take-More Effect

Mather’s research calls this the “winner-take-more” effect. For example, if you are focusing on something and hear an “emotionally arousing” sound, you are more likely to remember whatever you are focused on. You won’t just remember it better; you’ll actually see it better. The downside is that you are less likely to perceive non-crucial elements of the scene.

One study asked people to review a screen with letters appearing on them. Some letters were appeared in high-contrast and some appeared in low-contrast, making them harder to read.

After the scientists played an emotionally charged sound, the test subjects had an easier time reading the high-contrast letters. They had a harder time reading the low-contrast letters.

In real life, humanitarians face this sort of emotional stimulation daily. In my case, I can remember the girl in the blue dress, but I don’t remember her name. I don’t remember the name of the orphanage, nor do I remember any of the faces of the children in line with her to see the doctor.

Young Adulthood

The winner-takes-more effect impacts memory in many arenas, not just emotion. If a scene is arousing in other ways, it could lead to better recall later on. People are more likely to remember things that took place during early adulthood.

In one study, participants were asked to remember a story about a table or lamp, or other neutral object. No matter what their age was, people tended to offer up a story that took place during their late teens or early twenties.

Although the exact mechanisms are still being understood, researchers believe this stage of our lives is filled with new experiences that help define us. From age 19-26, we experience a “memory bump.”

Novelty and Surprise

Amazingly, the “bump” effect is not just limited to age. Researchers find the same bump for adults who are new immigrants in middle age. When salient scenes awaken our senses, we are more likely to remember them.

Someone who is new to humanitarian work and has just arrived in a country and sees the first starving child they’ve ever seen in their life, those things would be pretty memorable and vivid.

“Then once you’ve had some experience,” Mather suggests, “and you see more kids and more kids and more kids, it becomes just a category and it’s not as vivid.”

For aid workers and frequent travelers, novelty can heighten our experience. “If you add on top of that, something emotionally intense,” Mather says, “then you’d get really intense memories.”

Telling Stories

What we remember may dictate the story we tell about a place. The opposite is true, as well. When people retrieve a memory, they are reconstructing it from all the little pieces in their mind. “That makes things a lot more memorable,” Mather suggests. “But it might not make them accurate.”

After 9/11, researchers asked Americans to recall where they were when they heard about the attack. Many people reported that they were watching T.V. and saw the first plane hit the World Trade Center. In fact, there was no live coverage of the first plane hitting the building. So why did people believe they had seen it?

Old memories can be impacted by new information. Related items can be pasted onto the memory if they seem to fit.

Was the little girl in my memory really wearing a blue dress? I suddenly wondered. I looked back at my photos to check. She was wearing a blue dress the first time I saw her. Later in the day, she changed to a white dress. Amazingly, I didn’t remember that at all, but the photos confirm it.

I thought of her as “the girl in the blue dress,” and each time I retold the story, I reconfirmed the blue dress in my memory. She was sad, and so the blue-ness of her dress felt true. If Professor Mather’s research is any indication, I’m likely to remember the story, my way, for a long time to come.


This gallery features some of the children I remember, and many I don’t.

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