What do you remember from your last trip to the Shore? You rode the Ferris wheel and bought your kid an ice cream cone bigger than his head. You played volleyball shirtless and laughed at your own bad aim. You watched sneaker-clad dads twisting and turning umbrellas into the sand, muttering expletives.
Maybe you saw the Fudgy Wudgy guy pushing a big-wheeled cooler up and down the beach, yelling: “Give your tongue a sleigh ride!” But was that really on your last Shore visit? Or is it a memory from before, from deeper in your past? From a place you can envision but you can’t pinpoint exactly where or when?
This is what psychologists call implicit memories vs. explicit memories. Explicit are the things you can put your finger on, specific recollections at the front of your mind. Implicit memories go much deeper than that — and can push and pull your psyche without your even knowing it.
Think about it. Why do you go to the same Shore town every year? Why not pick someplace new? Switch to Maryland or Delaware? Venture up to Cape Cod or down to the Carolinas?
Nora Newcombe, a Temple University psychology professor and an expert in early-childhood memories, said it may be your unconscious memories driving you back. Your parents took you to that beach when you were young, and you formed great childhood memories. Your emotional attachment to those memories is triggered each time you return, even as the underlying memory begins to recede into the archives of your brain.
Shore experiences may be particularly sensitive to these implicit memories because beaches are laced with the type of sensory stimuli that can trigger those implicit memories. The sound of children squealing and splashing. The touch of sand, soft and hard, wet and dry. The sight of seagulls and propeller planes flying overhead.
“Some of it is just the smell of the salt air,” Newcombe mused. “And people do talk a lot about odor as triggering memories and triggering good feelings.”
Judy Connors was born and raised in Philadelphia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and has never stopped going to the Shore.
“Sea, sand, and sun for the young; boardwalks, restaurants and nightlife for everyone else,” she told fellow Shore bird Calvin Schwartz in 2015. “We never grew out of the beach vacation because the memories made at the Jersey Shore call us back year after year.”
For some, these happy memories are not merely for fun or relaxation, but a lifeline to confront major life hurdles.
Gregory Andrus’ lingering struggles with childhood abuse, mental illness, and substance abuse routinely send him back to the sea. The calming waves draw him out of his Toms River house weekly, and push him toward the boardwalks of towns up and down the Shore points. They drive him to document fellow strugglers along the way, to take their pictures, and to post their trials on his Facebook page.
“There is something about the ocean,” Andrus said. “It’s a medium. A way for us to connect with something bigger than ourselves.”
When you return to the beach next summer, consider this: The reason you’re there, the reason your parents went there, and the reason your grandparents went there, are all probably the same.
“You just like things that are more familiar,” said Newcombe.
About this series:
Shore is about everyday people and their meaningful times spent down the Shore. Find each installment — and be sure to leave a comment — at Philly.com/ShoreSeries.