It’s that old standby: You and her in the backseat of your 2004 Dodge Neon in the outskirts of the mall parking lot. You both remove your clothes and she climbs on top of you and you go on to have what will end up being the most memorable sex of your life. While the two of you broke up long ago for reasons you can’t quite remember, this night still stays with you as a crystal clear memory, and you can recall every single detail just as it was.
Or… can you?
Memories, as have been shown time and time again, are both unreliable and shockingly malleable, so why would the memories of your sexual exploits be any different? Wouldn’t your recollection of them shift and erode over time in the same way that you can’t quite recall all of the lyrics to Matchbox 20’s If You’re Gone anymore? Just how reliable is your spank bank, after all?
To figure this out, it may help to understand a little bit about how memories work. “For a long time, psychologists have known that memory is reconstructive,” explains Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology from the University of Toronto Scarborough. Joordens, who taught a course called “Memory and the Human Lifespan” for The Great Courses, explains, “You don’t retrieve a memory like you might retrieve an old photo from the hard drive, where it’s a perfect reconstruction of the original. Instead, you get parts of it, and then you fill in the missing parts with things that just make sense.”
This is something known as “regularizing,” which your brain does to fill in the gaps without you even noticing. You’ll get “the gist” right generally, but the details may need to be filled in, with the end result being a memory that feels right, but you really have no idea what was actually true and what’s been regularized.
But your spank bank deposits aren’t just regular old memories, of course — they’re some of the most revisited moments of your life, so might they be more reliable simply on the grounds that you recall them more often?
Well, it’s hard to say for sure. Joordens cites something that the psychological community used to refer to as “flashbulb memories.” The idea was that for major events, the memories would be more accurate than other memories: The signature idea of the flashbulb memory would be the JFK assassination, and how everyone knew where they were when it happened.
However, the idea of the flashbulb memory was all but disproven after the 1989 earthquake at the World Series in San Francisco. Immediately following the event, a team of psychologists interviewed people at the stadium to get their account of what happened. Then, at regular intervals, they’d check back in with those people and get them to tell the story again. What they found was that the stories changed over time without the witnesses noticing the changes. Their memories were just as vivid, but the accuracy would erode each time. Through this study, it was pretty much figured out that there are no really special memories that are impervious to regularization.
To further complicate matters, Joordens explains that it was found that the accuracy of the memories declined in part because the witnesses had to retell the story verbally — by having to retell it, they were forced to flesh out the story and regularize more. So, while someone constantly recalling the same old sexual story in their mind may degrade and shift over time, since we’re probably not narrating to our own masturbation, it may not be quite as unreliable as one might imagine.
Another factor, meanwhile, may actually help the accuracy of your memory: Your state of mind. “You get the most accurate transfer when the state of mind at retrieval is the same as it was when you learned it originally,” says Joordens. So since you were horny as fuck back when the event happened, and are equally horny 30 years later as you forlornly jerk off in the shower while the kids hammer on the bathroom door, the memory may be pretty close.
Joordens does point out that your state of mind isn’t exactly the same, though — for one thing, he says, you won’t be experiencing the same social pressures of performance anxiety that you were back then, so it won’t be an exact match to that state of mind.
This principle of retrieval cues also holds true for environments, smells and music: They provide you with something of a mental lure for your memory-fishing expedition. So, if somehow you managed to find yourself in the backseat of a Dodge Neon again, and you’re munching on the same Planters Cheez Balls that the two of you were snacking on, and suddenly the same old Matchbox 20 tune that was on the radio starts playing, you can expect to go down an erotic and fairly accurate ride down memory lane.
No matter what lengths you go to to reconstruct the same environment, though, the memory will never be completely accurate, as there’s still an imperfect retrieval process, meaning your brain will continue to fill in any gaps. In addition to that, since the context of this memory is as a device to get you off, you’re also very likely to enhance that memory without realizing you’re doing so. Alexandra Katehakis, clinical director for the Center for Healthy Sex, explains that our memories will likely be selective when you’re masturbating because you’re only focused on getting off. So you might remember her lingerie as a sexier color or her breasts as being a little bigger. All you’re really going to do, in short, is create the best possible fantasy.
In that way, getting off to a memory from the spank bank is quite similar to getting off to a hot porn video you remember watching: It’s all about achieving climax, not accuracy. In fact, you may even, over time, confuse some of what actually happened with porn that reminded you of the event, especially if you seek it out (don’t pretend like you haven’t searched for “Dodge Neon Sex” at Pornhub).
Here’s the thing: Your memories of both porn and of actual sexual exploits are all going to be living in the same memory center in the hippocampus of the brain, so it may be very possible to unknowingly confuse the two. Additionally, for those out there with a limited, or perhaps even non-existent sexual history, Katehakis explains that their spank bank will likely be filled primarily with favorite scenes, as well as ex co-workers they used to lust over or even people they see on the street. “It’s not uncommon for guys to see someone at a gas station pumping gas and then go home and masturbate to the image of that person,” she explains.
Still, even if the memory is a little fuzzier than we thought, is there any harm in constantly revisiting it over and over again? Could it, say, become so powerful that it affects your sexual expectations in future relationships? It’s possible, but on the other hand, it may be nothing more than a simple fantasy. As an (admittedly extreme) example, Katehakis points out, “The number one fantasy of women between the ages of 20 and 40 is rape, but that doesn’t mean those women want to be raped, ever.” So while you might love to reminisce about that one time in the back of that Neon, it may just be a fantasy like any other, not affecting how you get off in actual sexual scenarios involving another person.
When you might run into trouble, though, is when it becomes obsessive, leading to that being the only way that you can get off. Katehakis explains that some people end up with a “rigid arousal template,” where only one kind of person or scenario can get them off: By narrowing their tastes so much, they may end up having trouble connecting to a mate, and could even end up with some sexual dysfunction because of it.
So if you’re looking for a sex life that exists beyond a Cheez Ball-filled back seat, you might want to try dusting off a few other memories now and again.