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

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Efficiency Of Memory–Why We Never Remember Insignificant People

A colleague at the World Bank tells the story of how one day he was called by a woman who wondered if they might have lunch. “It has been so long”, she said, “and it would be lovely to catch up”.  My colleague could not place the woman’s name or voice, but assumed that since she obviously knew him well, once they met, she, their relationship, and their experiences would all come back to him.

On the day of their lunch, he waited for her in the lobby of the main building, not knowing whom to look for, but assuming that she would quickly recognize him and the puzzle would be solved.  A few minutes after noon, an attractive woman – early forties, informal but stylishly dressed, tall, blonde, and smiling – came over to him, gave him a big hug, and told him warmly that she had been looking forward to the lunch since their call.

He, however, felt that he had never seen her before.  There was nothing  about her face, her figure, or her manner that was in the least familiar or recognizable.  It was clear from her warmth and eagerness that they in fact had met and perhaps much more; and embarrassed by his ignorance, he said nothing, certain that after a few minutes’ conversation, he would remember everything.  She put her arm through his and they walked out into the October sunshine.

Yet, even after their walk to the restaurant, and despite her chatty inquiries about his work, his family, and his health, he remembered nothing.   He asked about her work, how she was finding it, and if she had continued to spend much time in Africa – an educated guess since he worked in the Africa Division of the Bank and had travelled to Mali, Burkina, and Senegal at least three times a year, and the probability of their meeting there was high.

Image result for images timbuktu

“I haven’t been there in donkey’s years”, she said, “couldn’t stand the flies in the beer.”  Asia was her beat, she went on, “Same old, same old” with no clues about her work, her profession, or her bosses.  She was not being evasive.  It was just that her breezy familiarity took a lot for granted – he knew, she assumed, what she had been doing for all these years, with whom, and where, and there was certainly no point in spoiling a delightful lunch talking business.

By the time they had finished their first course – a cold vichyssoise and a tomato bisque – he was no closer to recognizing her than when the first met in the Bank lobby; but since now he was so far into the conversation, the renewed acquaintance, and the meal, he was too embarrassed to come right out and admit his ignorance.  To do so would to say clearly that despite her interest in him, her obviously warm feelings, and apparent friendship for him, she meant nothing.

There was no ‘Aha!’ moment, not even a scintilla of recognition, not through the soup course but the bouillabaisse, profiterole, coffee, and cognac.  Thanks to the scandals in the White House and the fall of the dollar, they were no different than any other power couple on K Street.  There was no need nor time for anything more personal.   After the meal they embraced warmly, promised to meet again, this time sooner than the long years which had passed since their last meeting, and said goodbye.

Image result for images tomato bisque

For weeks after their meeting my colleague parsed every line of the conversation at Le Diplomat, explored ever nuance and every reference; but still could come up with nothing.  The fact that he had forgotten – or worse never remembered – this woman was troubling.  Was this a Freudian moment? Or simply a distraction – a meeting in difficult circumstances that at the time was incidental and unmemorable?

He never did remember who she was; and since she had never, not surprisingly, called him again, he forgot her. Forgot whom, exactly? There was as little substance in her silhouette as anyone, and he remembered only the lunch, the prickly situation, and his embarrassment.

Had the woman not called, their original meeting – he admitted that there must have been one – would have been lost in space, never saved to his memory, never recorded or filed.  It would have been as if she never existed and the meeting never happened.

One of the classic misunderstanding between older married couples is the husband’s lack of recollection.  “How could you possibly not remember that?” says the wife; but of course the husband has no recollection of her incidental stories, her rattling on about bits and pieces of family members who had drifted in and out of sight over the years without consequence, not even a blip on the radar.  It is selective, efficient memory at its best.  Without perception filtered by predisposition,  life would be a chaotic jumble of indecipherable things.

It isn’t  a question of storage.  The human brain has the capacity of a thousand supercomputers but not the computing power.  Memory is more a function of character than of function.  What we remember is conditioned by who we are.  A person attuned to, concerned about, and interested in others as a matter of genetics, is likely to remember love affairs, marriage, sickness, profession, and unhappiness in great detail.  For one who is not so sensitive, the same people only occupy space temporarily, without notice and are gone without a trace.

Memory, or the lack thereof, is not neutral – an individual affair with no consequence.  Lack of recollection – drawing a blank – is a sign of indifference.  Everyone expects one’s personal zone of being to be of interest to everyone else – s question of mattering, of validation; and without recognition, one exists less.

Memory becomes particularly important as one ages.  Alzheimer’s and dementia loom.  Nabokov, a self-described memorist, knew from childhood that remembering the past was important.  In fact the past was what defined human experience.  The present was no more than a few milliseconds of awareness, the future only possibility, but the past increasing with years, was the only real, palpable, existential element of being.  If memory of the past disappears, than one disappears.  The dementia patient who first cannot remember, then creates irrational, impossible memories, then finally forgets everything, ceases to exist.  It was as though their lives had never been led.

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Older people without dementia are also governed, by memory.  Since their lives are more and more circumscribed and limited by illness or frailty, and since the future becomes less and less relevant, it is only memory that sustains them.  Yet at the same time they are less interested in storing new memories.  They pay less attention to the lives of others and more to their own increasingly liable ones.  One dies alone, as Tolstoy wrote in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and only one’s past – the only validation of having lived – remains.

So it was quite ordinary that my World Bank colleague had no recollection of an insignificant woman.  Most of our lives are filled with insignificant people and things.  Perhaps the most aware of us realize this, make no apologies for it, and focus on the only thing that matters – oneself and one’s final moments.

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