I remember when I was in the sixth grade, around 12 years old, my classmates and I went on a trip to Washington, D.C. Around the second day we were there, there was a heavy snowfall, covering the ground in thick, white powder that for kids from Texas was a complete dream. After visiting landmarks and memorials all day, we came across a large lawn and spontaneously, we all broke out into a massive snowball fight. The entire year, whether we really knew each other well or not, began pelting poorly rolled snowballs at each other that would break apart the second they were thrown, filling the air with a second snowfall. I remember that moment so specifically, and I remember, even at the age of 12, thinking that this memory would be something cemented in my brain for the rest of my life.
Core memories was a term coined by the 2015 Pixar film Inside Out. The film, which follows the personified versions of the main character Riley’s feelings inside her mind, circle a significant plot point around the collecting and storing of golden orbs that hold Riley’s core memories.
Joy, one of the characters, explains core memories to each be memories that “power a different aspect of Riley’s personality”. So it’s the big and small moments you share with the ones you love that stay with you forever, whether that’s consciously or unconsciously, feeding who you become as a person.
Looking back at my life, there are moments like the snowball fight in D.C. that I can single out and recall in detail. Whether they were filled with joy, sadness, or something in between. But, just because I remember them well, does that mean it’s a core memory? Did the snowball fight I had with my classmates make me who I am today?
Though I’m not 100% sure, as always, social media seems to be. With the release and popularity of Inside Out, the term core memories began being used across social media. Like most trends, the trend began on Twitter, as early users started to question what their core memories might be. On Twitter, users began questioning the quality of their core memories: is your core memory better than mine? Is it silly or pathetic if my core memories are made up of seemingly arbitrary things and not big, life changing moments?
More recently, TikTok began to pick up on the idea. Where Twitter compared core memories, TikTok creators filmed videos of moments they thought would become core memories. Videos of children and dogs in the snow, surprise visits, and moments with friends litter the #corememories tag. On TikTok, it almost seems as if users are hopeful, or even sure, that they can decide and curate the memories that will define their future personalities.
The idea of core memories gained so much traction on Twitter that even big names began catching on. The Dunkin’ Donuts twitter account, which often likes to partake in twitter trends, tweeted out this year: “my first sip of Dunkin’ is a core memory for me”.
But are core memories such a shallow thing that they can be claimed by big business to relate to their young audience, or moldable enough that users on TikTok and Twitter can orchestrate and select which memories will be their core memories? To me, it feels like our core memories should be something deeper, something more intrinsic.
To better understand this, I’m going to dive into a little bit of the science behind the construction of memories. According to philosophers Antonia Peacocke and Jackson Kernion, memory is messy, and gets more and more muddled every time we recall it. Funnily enough, the more we retell a memory in our minds or out loud, we actually remember it less and less accurately, as we retell and redefine what truly happened. Any number of factors, like who you’re telling the memory to, your mood while recalling that memory, and your imagination, alters the memory every time it’s brought up in your consciousness.
For instance, when I look back at the memory of my 6th grade trip to Washington D.C. and the snowball fight, I remember it with complete bliss. But could there be more to the story? Maybe there was a teacher, annoyed at all the children dragging wet, muddy snow back into the bus. Maybe there was a student who cried, after getting a handful of snow chucked in their eyes. If I really try to focus on them, the details of this memory are blurry, and besides the childlike magic and sense of awe I had for the snow, I have to accept that I don’t actually remember much from that moment.
We also change our memories in retrospect. Maybe something you thought was a happy memory from your childhood could, with hindsight, maturity, or new knowledge, be bittersweet. Though that doesn’t change how you felt in that moment, the projection of your current state of mind can certainly impact how you feel about or the way in which you remember that particular memory.
So in Inside Out, though Riley’s memory orbs seem convenient, they are far from the reality of complex neural pathways that makeup our memories and knowledge. But, outside of accepting the obvious, that this children's Pixar’s film was obviously not going for complete scientific accuracy, we can see a desire for the organisation and collection, even commodification, of our memories.
Why was Inside Out so popular? If we think about it, the orderly and easily understood concept of our feelings as little characters in our heads taking care of our core memories is attractive. It ultimately feels like the recent trend of core memories links back to current society’s inability, along with the help of social media, to live in the moment. With the influence of the media, it’s almost impossible to know yourself these days; so, as a response, we create these trends that allow us to reflect back on our lives in the hope that we can gain some semblance of understanding for who we are as people.
With the core memories trend, users across social media are able to easily identify the memories they feel will be important. It’s convenient and you have total control. If I can identify or even choose what my core memories are, can I not also confidently decide who I am? And what experiences made me into who I am?
If I apply this line of thought to my memory of the snowball fight in sixth grade, what does that say about who I am? Do I remember that moment because of how happy I felt, how surrounded by happiness I felt? I think of mine and classmates’ cheeks, tinged red with the cold we were unused to, of our soaked through tennis shoes, and of the almost tangible atmosphere of childlike carelessness. You could practically breathe it in.
But looking back now, I feel that my recall of the memory has less to do with if it made me who I am, but more to do with my place in life now. I reminisce on the simple joys of childhood and the happiness that my friends and I were able to experience together. But if I were asked to pick out some of my truly core memories, I know I wouldn’t be able to. Unfortunately for TikTok and Twitter, memories are not intentionally formed, and our identities are not so easily defined. Afterall, who really knows who they are and why they are?
Illustration: Lauren McAndrew