Episode 3 – Alter Memory

*wind blowing*

All my lonely thoughts of Quest abandoning me to join the circus left my head, as I stared into my mother’s eyes. My mother. Who I had seen dead on the floor of our house four years ago. My mother. Who I had spent the last four years of my life running away from, trying to find. My mother. Who I had loved and lost and mourned and cried and cried and cried over. All of the memories I had of us playing together. All of the memories I had of being stuck in a room alone, a house that would never be my home. Feeling so small, scared, abandoned. I couldn’t believe she was here.

M: “Come here,” my mother said, opening her arms to me,

E: “But… you’re dead,” I said, taking a cautious step backwards.

E: A look of anger flashed across her face.

M: “Why on Earth would you think that? 

I thought back, and realized–my mother wasn’t dead. She never had been. When I thought about it now, I remembered – there was no blood on the floor, no broken glass; no reason to think she had been injured at all. 

“Don’t you remember us playing hide and go seek?”

It started to come back to me. That’s right! We had been playing hide and seek, and she had hid so well I had given up and left!

E: “How did you get here? Why didn’t you come find me earlier? Why have I been alone all this time?” 

“Honey, I couldn’t control everything,” she stepped towards me.

As she got closer, I noticed that she didn’t smell like honey and cloves, like my mother does. She smelled like slime, an unearthly smell that rattled me to my core. 

“You’re… not my mother,” I said, backing away.

“Why of course I am,” she said, her eyes bulging, her hair shrinking into her scalp, her lips unraveling into tentacles that reached towards me

I ran and screamed, hoping to high heaven that someone would hear me.

//

“WHAT IN THE NAME OF OUR LADY IS GOING ON HERE?”

A stocky dwarf with flaming red hair appeared at the mouth of the alley, robed in religious garments. He dropped his altar decorations and brandished a glowing needle that emitted with a comforting light.

The monster turned its head, and roared at the dwarf, snapping a beak from between its tentacles. In one swift gliding motion, the monster halved the space between itself and the dwarf.

With a wave of the dwarf’s hand, the creature that seconds ago had been my mother was frozen in place.

“Miss, might you tell me what’s happening?”

I couldn’t. I was in shock. My mumbles were unintelligible, but I think he got the general idea.

“In the name of my lady Sharindlar, I banish thee, monster”

The tentacled thing faded out of existence. My body continued to shake, my head feeling unsteady on my shoulders.

The dwarf looked at me, and muttered a few words under his breath. I felt a bit more stable, more put together.

“Onin Frostbeard, life cleric of our Lady Sharindlar, at your service,” the dwarf said with a bow. “Can you tell me what happened?”

I took a deep breath, and began.

[quickly] “I was walking down the street and all of a sudden my mother came out of the doorway, but it wasn’t her and I fell down and I just realized she’s still alive and I need to go look for her but I don’t know where to start and I–” 

The dwarf’s needle lit up, cutting off my train of thought.

“Hmm. This needle only alights in the presence of evil. That creature I banished was a mindflayer, and a powerful one. Mindflayers have psionic magic, with the power to change and influence minds. Could I scan your mind to see if it inflicted any damage on you?”

I nodded listlessly.

He pored over my head with the needle, moving methodically across my scalp. He stopped suddenly, as if he had hit a wall. He poked my head.  Nothing happened. 

O: “It seems as though there’s something here.”

E: “Oh,” I mumbled, still a bit out of it, “Can you fix it?”

The dwarf muttered a few spells. I felt energized, but he seemed disappointed.

O: “My dear, there’s not much more I can do. I think this is something that magic can’t fix.”

My stomach sank. If this uber-powerful cleric couldn’t do anything, then who could?

E: “What should I do? Is there someone else who can help me?”

O: *tsk tsk* with mental magic, the injury is internal – only you can help yourself. Think back – what did that thing make you think of?

E: My mother… it was pretending to be my mother.

O: When was the last time you saw your mother?

E: Four years ago, in our house… I had just come home from the apothecary, and she had decided to play hide and seek, without telling me. I remember feeling scared because I couldn’t find her. But that doesn’t make sense–I was always the hider when we played hide and seek.

I remember feeling terrified, running until my feet bled and then continuing to run, trying to get away from the place. Now, it seemed like I should have stayed.

E: “But the memory feels… glossy, somehow. Too shiny, almost new;

Orin nodded. “That’s probably where it got you, then. Sounds like an altered memory to me.  

E: What should I do?

O: “I’ve spent my whole life learning about life and love, in the name of our lady Sharindlar; the best advice I can offer is that, in order to heal, sometimes you have to re-open the wound.”

I understood what he meant. I would have to go back and remember, re-live my experience.

O: “And if that doesn’t work, you could always hit it with a hammer and see what happens.

//

Onin walked me back to the inn.

O: “You are a good person, and I value good people. I value life. You are young, and you have your whole life to live. Please let me know if I can be of service to you.”

E: Thank you – you’ve already saved my life once today.

Quest heard my voice and came outside the inn.

Q: Eve, there you are! That’s the second time I lost you today!

O: My lovely lady, let me buy you a drink–

Q: Not now

Onin nodded, and gave a short bow.

O: If you request my services again, you may find me at the temple of Sharindlar.


E: Thanks again for your help.

*walk into inn*

Q: What happened?

E: I think Onin called it a mindsplayer?

Quest went pale.

Q: A mindflayer?

E: Yeah! That was it.

Quest did the sign of the cross.

Q: Eve, you are so lucky to have made it through alive.

E: But it changed something in my memory– I don’t know how I’m going to change it back.

*we walk up the stairs*


Q: Your memory? I think I remember one of the books in the library about memory! [pause]. You go up and get in bed – I’ll fetch it.

I walked the rest of the way upstairs on my own, and clambered into bed. It had been a long day, and I was torn. Though most of me wanted to go to sleep, forget about the events of the day, another part of me couldn’t shake the conviction that my mother was still alive. Even though I knew I couldn’t trust my memory, I still hoped.

Quest came back in.

Q: Here it is!

*book plops on bed*

Q: Memory… create new memories, no we don’t want that… altering memories, no that’s already been done… AHA! Retrieving past memories that have been altered. Let’s see…

*book pages turning*

Q: Even if a memory has been altered, the old memory is still present underneath the new one. If the time of alteration was recent, have the subject abstain from sleep for at least 24 hours, or until the old memory has been recovered.

E: Yawning–cut off. What?

Q: Sorry Eve, it looks like that’s what needs to happen so that the new memory doesn’t stick. Something about sleep making memory permanent… But it has ways to recover the real memory!

Q: In order to retrieve the old memory, the subject must try to reconstruct as many factors as possible…. I guess that means remembering in detail? 

E: Okay *sigh*. It was my golden birthday– I turned 12 on December 12. It was a mild day, no snow. My mother woke me up, and gave me my present after breakfast. It was this beautiful locket *bring it out*. She said it would always be there to remind me of who I was. Anyways, after breakfast I got all bundled up, packed a sack, and went on my biggest solo journey – to the apothecary in Pavlok. It took me an hour to walk there and an hour back; I stopped and asked for directions once or twice.

Q: This is very important! Was it once, or twice?

E: Twice. I think I had to ask both ways. Anyways, once I got back to my house, I walked in the door and… no one was home. I remember something about hide and go seek, looking for my mother. The next thing I know for sure is I was running, running, running back… I told the apothecary my mother had been killed, though I’m not sure if that’s true anymore, and she let me stay for the night. *shrugs* that’s it. That’s all.

Q: And how does it feel when you think about it?

E: I believe it. Even though I know it’s not true, even though the memory feels wrong somehow… If there’s even the faintest possibility my mother is still alive, I have to believe it. [sigh] [pause]

E: Quest, I have to go back. I have to know.

Q: I know. [pause]. Do you want me to come with you?

I thought about Quest’s new job at the circus, how excited she had been. I didn’t want to go alone, but I couldn’t ask her to leave her dream behind for me. I shook my head.

E: It means a lot that you offered; I know how important the circus is to you. Maybe I’ll ask the dwarf who helped me earlier. If nothing else *yawn*, he might have something that can keep me awake for the night. 

//

I walked through the abandoned streets of Tarquin, toward the temple of Sharindlar. The dwarf had said she was the goddess of life and lust, and there were few buildings still lively at this hour. I could hear the shrieks of pleasure and music from across the town. I followed the moon set on top of the steeple, and knocked on the door. The sounds from inside intensified. A pretty girl opened the door.

E: Hello, can I please see Onin?

G: Why yes, of course!

After a few moments, Onin came outside to meet me.

E: To recover the memory, I need to recreate it. I think I have to go back to the place where I last saw my mother

O: And where is that?

E: My hometown: Lethoria. 

O: *sighs* “Well, that’s a day’s journey!”

E: I know. But if we leave now, we can arrive before tomorrow night.

Onin glanced at the sky.

O: Alright then. The quickest way is through the mountains. We will be guided by the light of Our Lady, the Shining Dancer, whose graceful movement through the sky guides all such wandering travelers.

E: Um….

O: The moon.

E: Oh! Yeah! Cool. Let’s do it!

*nighttime journey through mountains music*

Bundled in furs with special shoes, we walked, until the mountains in the distance became mountains up close became steep hills we had to climb. It was tough – each step forward felt like a small slide back – but it was beautiful. The snow fell softly around us, towering mountains above dotted with frosted pine trees. It was so serene. I almost didn’t want us to pass through. 

The sky gradually lightened, the snow reflecting the brilliant sunrise. The warmth was welcome.

We made away across the Eastern pass. There was an inn right at the edge of the mountain range. Onin gazed longingly inside.

E: Well, go on then

O: Oh, no, I would hate to inconvenience–

E: Don’t worry about me. You’ve got me through the hardest part: the waiting. I remember this place – that’s my old village, at the base of the mountain.

O: Well, if you’re sure–

E: I insist. I’ll meet you back here once I’m done

Onin rushed to the door and sat down on the nearest chair.

I chucked, and continued on.

I could see my old village from the top of the mountain. The closer I came, the more familiar everything seemed. There was Tier’s tavern, Gwen’s dress shop, where I had gotten a purple dress for my 8th birthday. It had been so long since I had been here. 

I remembered the path to my house. I remembered stepping over the cracks, kicking rocks to make the walk more exciting. I saw it from a block away. My old home. It looked the same from the outside: same sloping roof, same iron door. I walked towards it, glancing around to make sure no one was watching me. 

It was a quiet morning, no one around. I didn’t want to ring the doorbell, in case someone else had bought the house. I decided to peek inside the window instead. When I did, I saw a house that was vastly different from the one that had been my home. There were books everywhere, even more than we had had, but not organized nicely like ours had been. These books were stacked on shelves, open on tables, their pages spread across the floor. And I saw a figure walking through the maze, a familiar outline that sent shivers down my spine.

A man drew closer, bushy eyebrows and a square chin that took me back to one night in the fall. His face seemed familiar somehow, like a long-lost dream…

My mother had been reading to me in bed, as we did every night, when there was a knock on the door. She looked out the window, and saw the man.

“Stay here”, she told me.

I watched as she went downstairs, and opened the door to talk to him. He tried to come in, but she gestured agitatedly up the stairs.

The man looked up and saw me staring out the window. There was a darkness in his eyes that went deeper than the night, that sent me scampering back under my covers. My mother came back and finished the book, but I barely heard the ending, I was so busy wondering who this man was.

When I asked my mother about him, she said he was someone who wanted her help. She said he was nice, but not as nice as me. Then she tickled my stomach, blew out our lamp, and climbed into her bed next to mine.

This was only a few days before my birthday… *gasp*… I started backing away, then turned and ran before I had even asked about my mother. 

The panicked movement of my feet on the ground finally brought back an image even the mindflayer’s magic couldn’t erase, an image I had spent four years trying to unsee. My mother lay on the ground, her face pale and bruised, a circle of blood surrounding her head like a halo. Her beautiful blonde hair was matted, dyed red on the floor. Her face was fearful, her eyes wide. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t a game. Someone had hurt her, killed her. 

I had gotten my memory back, just like I wanted… but at what cost?

//

I ran back up the mountain to the inn, and asked for Onin Frostbeard’s room. The innkeeper, a friendly hallfing, led me right there. Onin was asleep on the bed, but roused as he heard me come in.

O: What happened, how did it go?

I sat down.

E: I got my memory back… but I almost wish I hadn’t

O: That bad, huh?

E: “For a while, as I ran, the image kept flashing into my mind. My mother, on the floor, her head covered in blood. I kept thinking that I could’ve been there, I could’ve helped her… I should have been there. I should have done something.

O: “If you had been there, you would have died too.”

E: Better to die with her than try to figure this life out alone… I don’t mean that. [sigh] I’ve met some wonderful people, like you along this journey. It just sucks to do it alone.


O: “Well we all feel alone sometimes. But you have to remember that you’re not truly alone. You do have people around you. You have me. You have your friends. You must have other people in your family, right? Where about your father? Where is he in all of this?”

E: “I never knew him. My mother said he had come from the fae, that he could not stay, that he had a war to fight, far away. He never even knew I was born.”

*blinks away tears*

E: “She said I look like him though. His pointed ears, slanted eyes. She said I was just like him: when I put my mind to something, nothing could stop me.

//

My memory was back, there was no denying that. Yet it hurt so much, it didn’t feel like a memory at all – it felt like my mother’s death had just happened anew. Everything seemed to bring it back – a girl with blonde hair made me think of my mother, a song I heard floating through the window sounded like one she would sing. Now that I had finally gotten my memory back, it seemed I couldn’t get rid of it.

I decided to get my own room, and stay the rest of the day at the inn; I didn’t feel up for going anywhere. I was exhausted, after having gone without sleep for 32 hours. Even though I knew sleep wouldn’t let me forget, I was tired. There was nothing else I could do. I stepped behind the doors of oblivion.

// outro music

Magic of the Mind is a podcast set in the Forgotten Realms of Dungeons and Dragons that communicates topics in cognitive science. If you want to learn more about the theories of memory written into this episode, keep listening for the science behind the story interview with Dr. signy sheldon, a memory researcher at mcgill university. 

This podcast was made with support from Building 21, a McGill space for innovative and collaborative creation. Thanks to Emily Sheeran for reprising her role as Quest, Liam Halloran as Onin Frostbeard, and Anita Parmar as the lovely and freaky Momster. As always, huge thanks to Florestan Bruck for composing Eve’s themes and Dorothea Stefanou for creating our beautiful logo. Additional thanks to Thomas Barrett for scripting edits. 

This show was made possible by people like Madelyn Dorta, Helena Zhang, Faye Hughes, Cammy Torgenrund, and Emma Satchell. You too, could have your name read out on the podcast if you buy a cool sticker to support our show!! Link on our website, magicofthemind.ca. 

If you liked this episode, please let me know by leaving reviews on iTunes, tweeting @magicofthemind1, or joining the facebook group at bit.ly/mindmemes. Check back in two weeks for the next step in Eve’s journey, where she experiments with some emotion-altering substances. I’m Morgan; thanks for listening.

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

Hello, it’s Morgan, voice of Eve and writer here on Magic of the Mind. So, for some backstory on episode 3: I recently made a middle school emo playlist on spotify that I’ve been listening to on repeat. The first song on the playlist is Memory by Sugarcult, a song I got really into in 6th grade. It’s a song that mixes up the past and present and future of a doomed relationship, and it made me think a lot about how memories can feel like the present, and imagination can affect our memories of the past and our ideas about the future. And that’s kind of the theme for today’s interview; as you’ll hear Professor Signy Sheldon say, memory is basically mental time travel. 

There are certain things that memory is more attuned to, stimuli (or things in the environment) to which it responds more quickly and sensitively. One of these is our sense of smell. Mindflayers, the creature that was impersonating Eve’s mother, eat brains, and one of their strategies to get close to their targets is to impersonate a loved one by scanning the thoughts of their prey. When Eve approaches the mindflayer that she thinks is her mother, she realizes it doesn’t smell like her mother, which shakes her out of the illusion. Smell is intimately tied to memory, because it is the one sense that doesn’t go through processing in a part of the brain called the thalamus. Instead, smell is directly integrated into memory. So that’s cool!

Most of this episode is centered around the idea that memory is a reconstruction, meaning that the memories we have aren’t exact replications of what happened to us; they can be altered by our context. The mindflayer impersonating Eve’s mom is able to suggest to her (with the aid of a “modify memory” spell) that something she knew for sure (her mother’s death) was wrong, by tossing in true details with a wrong story. This is the power of suggestion, something Dr. Sheldon will talk more about later. 

When Eve gets back to the inn and Quest reads “the subject should refrain from sleeping for 24 hours”, this is because memory is consolidated during the time of sleep. This means memories move from short-term to long-term, strengthening the connections between our memories as our minds replay them while we’re asleep. The best way to forget something is to not sleep! And vice versa: if something important happens you want to remember, make sure to get a full night’s rest.

Finally, at the end of the episode, after Eve regains her memory, there are a number of things that re-engage it for her. Obviously, not to the extent of some stronger traumatic memories (like those experienced by people with PTSD) but traumatic memories like these can be truly debilitating, as your memory throws you back in time without your consent.

//


Hey, me again. I guess the take-home message from this episode is: memory isn’t truth. Nothing we remember seeing or hearing or knowing is necessarily how things happened. There’s a section in Cornelia Funke’s wonderful Inkheart where Maggie talks about how each book has memories stored in it from the last time she read it, almost like flowers pressed between pages that she gets to recollect each time she re-opens the book. That’s what memory is like – each time you open a memory, you press a little bit of your current self between those pages, and change it a little bit. And I think that’s even more beautiful – the idea that we can change our memories, alter the person we were, through tellings and re-tellings and re-imaginings. We have the power to shape our memory, and some would say, to shape our identity. John Locke, a 17th century philosopher, actually believed that the self, who we are, is wholly composed of our memories. I think that’s a really interesting theory. In every episode, I’ve tried to show how we can impact the mechanisms of our minds, and memory is an especially powerful example of that.

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