Can you recall your very first memory? What about your beloved childhood pet's name? Or the taste of your favorite childhood dish? Perhaps you don’t remember anything at all, or on the contrary, you remember your every single breathing second on this planet. If you do, please give me some of that brain storage.
Yet, when thinking of all this stuff in the past, is it really ever in the past? Or does it continue to live onto the present as we think of them and breathe new life into these thoughts? Like patiently blowing into the final little embers of a bonfire that has almost gone out- but not quite yet.
This thought was sparked as I read this psychological research paper that has been conducted in Spain. According to the researchers, past tense sentences were perceived as more difficult to imagine and less vivid. And thus, induced a sort of abstract mindset. However, in the future tense, people could better understand the message of the sentences presented to them and therefore, it would set off a deeper emotional reaction. So when we talk about the past, but in a sort of present tense like ‘remember I’m sitting there crying and before I know it we’re fighting again’ for example we’re brought back to the present even though we’re referring to something in the past. The researchers summarize their findings by stating that the simple present tense holds a stronger persuasive quality. This is particularly true when delivering messages charged with emotion. According to their analysis of the simple present tense, the researchers concluded that the audience tends to focus on specific details, which may obscure the overall message but increase the perceived likelihood of the event and familiarity with the subject. They also suggest that the use of the simple present tense can intensify emotional reactions and make the event seem more immediate and vivid.
Taylor Swift, for instance, employs this technique in the bridge of the song “All Too Well”, where her vocals reach a crescendo as she laments how the other person continually hurts her (you can find a more in depth article with additional quotes highlighting this phenomenon here). The song returns to the present, with the narrator conveying her feelings of being discarded like a crumpled piece of paper. A similar technique is used in “right where you left me” as she details herself ‘Still sitting in a corner ‘[she] haunt[s]’. Thus, since this feels like it is in closer proximity to our present, we feel more deeply for the melancholic and lonely state the narrator portrays this person to be in whilst ‘in the dim light’.
Thinking of this, a few questions came to mind, such as ‘can the choice of verb tense in describing personal experiences alter the way we remember and interpret those experiences?’ Does the use of verb tense impact the perception of the timeline of events in our lives? Is anything that lives in our memories an accurate representation of what actually occurred at the time?
Thus, as such language affects our perception of the timeline of events, causing us to recall them more vividly, I move back into my own head: like it was yesterday we were at that Indian restaurant in the city, or grieving our childhood pet fish and hamsters (rest in peace Ramone and Rodrigo), when really, it was oh so many years ago…