Mur­phy’s Lore

Sam’s run­ning mem­ory is long

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents - SAM MUR­PHY Sam Mur­phy tweets @Sam­mur­phyruns

I once read about a man who’d

suf­fered brain dam­age and lost his mem­ory. He no longer recog­nised his wife or re­mem­bered whether he’d eaten break­fast, but set him out­side his front door and he could un­err­ingly walk the neigh­bour­hood cir­cuit that had formed his morn­ing con­sti­tu­tional for years. It was as if his foot­steps had im­printed the route in­deli­bly on his brain.

I re­call think­ing the same would hold true for my reg­u­lar run­ning routes – even those I’d not ex­plored in years. Stand me on the doorstep of the house where I grew up and I’d set off on one of those well-trod­den routes with­out a sec­ond thought.

I re­cently had a chance to put this no­tion to the test, when I went for a run while stay­ing with my mother for the fi­nal time be­fore the old house was sold. Sure enough, my feet soon found a fa­mil­iar route, need­ing no guid­ance from my brain.

There were changes, of course. Dif­fer­ent cars in neigh­bour­ing drives, new ar­rivals in the pa­rade of shops, smart flats, all glass and steel, glint­ing in the sun – but much more was the same. And that same­ness lent the run a feel­ing of nos­tal­gia.

Here’s the stretch of road where I bumped into an ex-boyfriend – my first love – not long af­ter our split. He’d last seen me bro­ken, but my run­ning had helped me grow strong, and I knew he could sense it.

Here’s the cor­ner where I can still pic­ture vividly the red phone box into which I stepped, sob­bing, to call my mum and ask her to col­lect me be­cause I couldn’t run any fur­ther. Crip­pled with knee pain, I was just a week away from what should have been my first marathon.

And here’s the church where I once had to re­quest – with some ur­gency – to use the toi­let. I left re­lieved, but with a hand­ful of re­li­gious leaflets in my hand.

The vis­ceral strength of all these mem­o­ries sur­prised me. I could still smell the pee-rid­den in­te­rior of the phone box as if I were stand­ing in its con­fines; hear the muf­fled tones of an off-key or­gan play­ing at the church; and as I cut across a park where a group of boys once threw a spark-spit­ting fire­work at me, I felt a rip­ple of ten­sion in my stom­ach.

Much re­search has been done on the link be­tween phys­i­cal fit­ness and the pro­cess­ing and stor­age of mem­o­ries. For ex­am­ple, it’s been found that aer­o­bic ex­er­cise ben­e­fits the hip­pocam­pus (the area of the brain in­volved in re­mem­ber­ing) and im­pedes mem­ory loss as we age. But most of this re­search fo­cuses on vol­un­tary mem­ory – our ca­pac­ity to re­call spe­cific in­for­ma­tion. The mem­o­ries that ar­rive un­bid­den are dif­fer­ent. Psy­chol­o­gists call it ‘in­vol­un­tary au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal mem­ory’, those mem­o­ries that pop up in re­sponse to a par­tic­u­lar en­vi­ron­ment, sit­u­a­tion or trig­ger with­out con­scious ef­fort.

It’s been shown that in­vol­un­tary mem­o­ries tend to be most preva­lent when the mind is left to wan­der, rather than when it’s be­ing asked to fo­cus on one thing. That may be why run­ning presents the per­fect sce­nario – its fa­mil­iar­ity and repet­i­tive­ness lit­er­ally jog the mem­ory.

As run­ners, many of our mem­o­ries are trod­den into the path it­self. You can scale a par­tic­u­lar hill and re­call how you felt reach­ing its peak on a past oc­ca­sion. You can press the ‘walk’ but­ton at a road cross­ing and re­call the count­less other times you ex­tended your in­dex fin­ger to press it. A rock, a tree, a gate, a path junc­tion – all silently call­ing up mo­ments from your past.

I’ve driven the routes near my old house many times and that, too, has trig­gered the re­mem­ber­ing of things. But my re­cent trip down mem­ory lane showed me that cou­pling the phys­i­cal con­text (in this case, run­ning) in which a mem­ory was forged with the en­vi­ron­men­tal cue is twice as pow­er­ful, an even big­ger rab­bit hole down which to tum­ble into the past.

My run fin­ished, I walked up to the glass-paned front door and rang the bell for what would be the fi­nal time. A sweaty mid­dle-aged woman stared back at me from the glass. But be­hind her, the faint re­flec­tion of a hun­dred younger selves stared too, as if the door wasn’t glass at all, but an in­fin­ity mir­ror. These train­ers, I thought, they’re more valu­able than any time ma­chine.

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