"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Selective Memory–Get Rid Of The Nasty Bits

My mother insisted that Uncle Tony picked his nose because she hated Uncle Tony and was disgusted at nose-picking.  In common parlance she conflated the two dislikes into one, indelible, but erroneous memory; but in my mind the offender was not Uncle Tony at all but Uncle Albert whom I hated. 

I remember Tim Watson as a dweeby little guy who voted for Stevenson in ‘52, but that was not Needles but Harry Hooper. Watson was indeed a dork, but he was tall for his age not short like Hooper. I remember the delicious lambi creole we ate in Les Cayes – succulent, spicy, tender conch meat, braised in red wine in a thick tomato sauce; except that we never ate lambi creole at the beach but at the 5-table restaurant in an old Victorian gingerbread house near the Olaffson.  I only wished that I had eaten it at La Macaya – the most romantic place in the country. Beach palms, quiet turquoise Caribbean waters, ceiling fan cabanas, visitors from St. Bart’s and Paris.

I never assume that memories are accurate.  There is too much going on at the time of experience; and far too many happy and unhappy events between then and now to assure reliability. When my mother mentions Uncle Tony, only one image comes to my mind – a big, fat, goomba who ate hazel nuts and who worked in Ansonia.  My sister says no, it was Uncle Albert who worked in Ansonia.

Some memories get stored accurately, but usually need  help. Smell, for example, is a classic mnemonic trigger.  I can’t smell lilac perfume without thinking of Heather or get a whiff of Chanel and not think of Lisa.  There is no way that the images evoked are mistaken.  It doesn’t always take scent to fix a memory.  I remember exactly and perfectly that the woman in my hotel bed one night was fat; but I remember more about the room – cantilevered out over the crashing Atlantic – than about her. 

I will never forget the celebratory meal I had in Bucharest.  It wasn’t that good, but the sheer amount of fatty food was impressive.  Fried brains followed by deep-fried cheese and then steak with fatty pustules, lardy sides, and more striation than meat.  Dessert was made sweet cream, rich ricotta-like cheese, and eggy custard. I may have forgotten a course or even added one; but there was no way that I could ever forget that iconic meal.  Romania was just coming out of a dark period of decades of Communism, scarcity, and grey routine.  This meal celebrated the end of Ceausescu and an opening to the West.

As Erika Hayasaki writes in The Atlantic that researchers agree:

For all of us, the stronger the emotion attached to a moment, the more likely those parts of our brains involved in memory will become activated. As McGaugh told me, you wouldn't remember every commute you took to work each day. But if along one you witnessed a deadly crash, you would likely remember that one. Memories that stick with us are tinged with emotion.

The idea of the fallibility of memory has been around a long time and has been chronicles in both fiction and non-fiction. Two well-known literary works – The Ring and the Book (Browning) and The Alexandria Quartet (Durrell) tell the same story from different perspectives; but they are but two examples from world literature focusing on the same idea – the impossibility of accurate memory.

The Ring and the Book tells the story of a murder trial in Rome in 1698, whereby an impoverished nobleman, Count Guido Franceschini, is found guilty of the murders of his young wife Pompilia Comparini and her parents, having suspected his wife was having an affair with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi…. The poem comprises twelve books, nine of which are dramatic monologues spoken by a different narrator involved in the case… usually giving a different account of the same events, and two books (the first and the last) spoken by the author.

It is therefore surprising that researchers today feel that there is still something worth investigating on the subject:

New research released this week has found that even people with phenomenal memory are susceptible to having “false memories,” suggesting that “memory distortions are basic and widespread in humans, and it may be unlikely that anyone is immune,” according to the authors of the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

You can’t trust eyewitnesses today any better than you could back in 17th century Rome. What else is new?

Incorrect or photo-shopped memories are one thing, but distortion of the truth is another matter altogether.  Politicians again and again make shit up, even though they should know better.  Nothing is private these days, let alone military or educational records.  Despite what we may think, politicians are really not that stupid. They have just told the lie so many times that they have come to believe it.  Rationalization runs rampant.  “Well, OK, I wasn’t exactly in combat, but I could have been, dammit, volunteered, eager. Served honorably away from the front, but we were a Band of Brothers….”

“You got me there.  I never actually earned a PhD, but I was just a few courses shy; and had done so much independent work that I could have written two dissertations, but because…..”

I hate debating with an otherwise intelligent woman who, when asked for a source to back up her argument, always says, “I am not sure where I read it because I read so many journals.  Probably the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal”.  Of course her reference is more than likely to be from Ladies’ Home Journal, but she clings to her reputable sources like a terrier. Her mother simply made stuff up. Mrs. O’Reilly felt that she had to weigh in on every subject raised at the dinner table; and since she had no clue about political philosophy or space exploration, she simply made up cockamamie conclusions with fictitious references that were more wildly conceived than those of any politician.

Families are always good places to start to triangulate and define the past.  My son, daughter, and wife all have stored memories that suit their own personalities, experiences, traumas, and happiness; and in many cases have absolutely nothing to do with mine. “How can you possibly not remember that?”, my wife would say.  “You were there!”. I might well have been, but obviously whatever rang her bell didn’t ring mine.  My clapper was as silent as the Liberty Bell. I must have been sifting through my own bins of experience while visiting 17th century paintings at the Louvre. I remember La Coupole, the transvestite hookers in the Bois de Boulogne, oysters at Bofinger, and love overlooking the Seine, but not Louis le Nain and Nicolas Poussin.

Reaching consensus isn’t worth much in the memory game.  All that matters is what you remember.  Memory makes up a good portion of what we all are.  In fact we are nothing but our memories.

My father, a doctor, used to admit and see patients to ‘The Convalescent Home’, and would often tell me about how many of them couldn’t remember what they did yesterday.  I was shocked and afraid.  If people died with no recollection of what they did, I said to my father, then it was as though they never lived at all.  “Don’t worry”, he said.  “They can’t remember what they had for breakfast, but they remember everything about 1894”.

Science fiction has been way ahead of memory transplants. Total Recall (1990), based on a science fiction story by Philip K. Dick, explores the issue of appearance vs. reality.:

In the year 2084, Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) attempts to determine which of his experiences are real, and which are merely computer-generated fantasies implanted in his brain at a company called Rekall Inc. (PhilosophicalFilms.com)

Science is catching up fast however. In a series of experiments, scientists at Wake Forest led by Sam A. Deadwyler, were successful at implanting new memories in mice.  That is, they remembered things that never happened.

Tinkering with the brains of mice, scientists have given the rodents memories of events that never occurred. The researchers used a technique that involves activating neurons with light to train mice to "remember" a painful experience in a completely different context from that in which they experienced the pain. The false memories were encoded by brain cells in the same way as real memories are sealed in. (Livescience.com)

If you remember something that never happened to you – that is, if a the false implant of a beautiful love affair has been implanted in your brain – does it matter that it never existed?  For you it is as real as the spaghetti and meatballs you had last night; and no one can tell you differently.

So, especially in this increasingly virtual world where we cease to care very much what is real and what is computer-generated or –facilitated, why should we care if half of our memories are virtual?  If we can have the thrill, the nostalgia,and the happiness of virtual memories , why should we care how they got there?

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