Thursday, 23 June 2022

On the tip of my tongue

Memory isn’t a concrete thing. There’s no seat of memory in the brain that’s known to surgeons or research workers. Memory is more like a chain reaction, or a wave movement: break a link in the chain, disrupt the wave—and it goes. And when it returns, it’s often activated by some apparently extraneous cause. You forget a name, a word, a face—and something can recall them, some association, not in itself relevant.

E. C. R. Lorac - Shroud of Darkness (1954)

A quote  taken from recent holiday reading on the strangely elusive nature of memory. What was the book about? It was a detective story about... no I've already forgotten.

Memories are called up by the moment and the history of what we are, but when the moment has gone some memories are no longer needed. As other moments arrive, these memories fade away like ripples on a pond, to be replaced by other ripples.

As the quote implies, we have limited control over our memories, when they come to the fore and when they disappear. We are able to manipulate the reminders which bring them to the fore, an obvious example being the perusal of old photographs. Yet dredging up a specific memory can be frustratingly difficult as we cast around for a suitable reminder.

Of course the quote itself is a reminder. It stimulates a generalised memory of the problems we have with elusive memories. Those familiar instances where we struggled to recall something which should have been familiar. A name, incident or something we know but can’t quite call to mind when needed.

As an unimaginably vast stimulus, the internet stimulates many memories and also acts as a handy aid to the imperfect nature of memory. We look things up, take them further, look for alternatives and so on.

Of course if a suitable reminder is obscure and not readily found via search engines, then the internet could bury certain memories too. An engine to promote forgetting as we give up and move on. As Lewis Lapham once said before the internet really took off - some organisations are large enough to sustain their own theory of reality.

You know, we tend to forget too often that there were fascists in England in the 30’s.

E. C. R. Lorac - Shroud of Darkness (1954)


DiscoveredJoys said...

It's worse than that. It seems that we don't store memories like reels of film but recreate the memories from separate elements. Hence it is quite possible to 'remember' things incorrectly or even 'remember' events we have been told about but didn't witness.

Which is why the Police do not rely solely on eye-witness accounts. When they can be bothered, of course.

Sam Vega said...

Before the internet, I carried in my head a vague but huge list of things I wanted to look at and revisit, if only there could be some massive store-house of some kind. Who wrote that piece of music I keep hearing? What was the name of that character in that obscure novel I once read? What did the town centre look like before they built the town hall?

Now I've done all that, though, none of it really seems all that important. It was just the pressure of me wanting to know that made it seem so. Previously, when a memory surfaced and a question was answered by my own mind, it was quite exciting. Now, omniscience is quite boring.

Tammly said...

I'm not at all sure we, as yet, have all the information about memory and its mechanism in the brain. People seem to have differences in their memory types. I think short term and long term memory is just a start to the subject. In 2013 I was obliged to read the transcripts and witness submissions in a court case concerning my brother the events of which took place in the early 70s. I was to add my own account and was struck by the marked differences in their version of events both between each other and with mine. Their accounts were factually far inferior to my own, both in chronology, identity of the participants, nature of events, motives etc. I had the advantage of a very good (though not infallible) long term memory and the confirmation of contemporary official documents, letters diaries etc. The difference astonished me.

A K Haart said...

DJ - yes, our memories of people may be quite indistinct, just fragments of impressions which come together if we see them again. Remembering a person is nothing like looking at a photo. I think we catch glimpses of this in dreams.

Sam - it's an interesting point, omniscience can be quite boring. On the whole though, I'm both disconcerted and fascinated by the enormous number of possible interests I haven't taken up yet or even skated over.

Tammly - yes the operation of memory does still seem to be elusive and possibly will never be easy to grasp except in a very simplified way. I'm a little wary of revisiting old memories in case they become distorted by making too much effort to clarify them.