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Speak, Memory
February 2, 2013 7:39 PM   Subscribe

A meditation on falsehood and truth in memory by Oliver Sacks.
posted by parudox (26 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
The idea that memory is sometimes wrong reminds me of David Carr's excellent book Night of the Gun.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:51 PM on February 2, 2013


Reagan was a vigorous sixty-nine-year-old at the time...

And yet again memory fails the writer.
posted by Splunge at 8:14 PM on February 2, 2013


A few months ago I did a memory experiment. It involved a Super Bowl. After the Saints beat the Colts in 2010 I can distinctly recall telling a friend of mine that the moment when the Saints cornerback got the pick 6 off Manning late in the game to seal the victory "you are going to remember that a very long time". I illustrated it thusly: in 1983 (this # might be off by 1) Marcus Allen sealed a victory for my team (the Raiders (v. Washington)) with a 90 yard run from scrimmage and I remember that like it was yesterday and will never forget it.

That is easily testable and I decided to test it. Two questions: 1.) was Allen wearing a white jersey or a black one? 2.) what was the exact yardage of the run?

I searched one of my most vivid memory spaces of all and decided he was wearing a white jersey and the run was 88 yards. I pulled up the clip on youtube. It was only 72 yards (this # might be off by 5 or 8) and he was wearing a black jersey. So much for the power of my memory. There is a bunch of research on memory indicating that what we most vividly remember is our last recollection, not the original impression, which is the process by which memories evolve into something that may be completely different in important details.
posted by bukvich at 8:16 PM on February 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


Two decades ago I remembered an event from my childhood that changed how I viewed many important elements of my life. The details, some very clear, have always had an "iffy" quality to them, and I have never been able to pin down exactly what did and did not happen. I have considered various approaches (hypnosis, EMDR, etc.) in order to fill in gaps and clarify memory, but I suspect that I will never be sure that I haven't filled my own gaps.

The uncertainty that Sacks writes about is a familiar one that I have grown to accept.
posted by 1367 at 8:20 PM on February 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


One of my earliest memories is of encountering an escaped monkey or chimpanzee in my aunt and uncle's garden, at the edge of a cliff, above the railroad tracks and the ocean. Apparently it really happened according to my parents - at least I remember them telling me it really happened.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:41 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is a bunch of research on memory indicating that what we most vividly remember is our last recollection, not the original impression, which is the process by which memories evolve into something that may be completely different in important details.

Can you point me to some of this research, preferably an article for the lay audience?
posted by dhruva at 8:57 PM on February 2, 2013


Interesting article. Memory is a fragile thing, pervasive but not necessarily trustworthy.
posted by arcticseal at 9:03 PM on February 2, 2013


> Can you point me to some of this research, preferably an article for the lay audience?

It has been awhile since I was reading this so my memory is diluted. The name to google is Elizbeth Loftus. She is a bona-fide academic but I am sure there are critics galore as her area of research was debunking recovered memories and all kinds of brouhaha and shitstorms regarding satanic child sex abuse and what not. One of my less-diluted memories is a youtube video with the refrain: what you remember is your last recollection not the original event.

I looked at google results but nothing jumped out at me to concentrate my diluted memories.

:)
posted by bukvich at 9:07 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can you point me to some of this research, preferably an article for the lay audience?

Here's one such article on the idea that the act of remembering alters memories.
posted by parudox at 9:20 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


"'I have done that,' says my memory. 'I cannot have done that,' says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually--memory yields" - Nietzche
posted by tatiana131 at 9:26 PM on February 2, 2013 [16 favorites]


I always feel oddly comforted by the knowledge that my brain is constantly lying to me about what's real and what actually happened. Somehow it makes me a little more sanguine about everything.
posted by Scattercat at 10:50 PM on February 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


You ever have one of those moments where something you see or hear reminds you of something else you saw or heard or did, and then a second later you realize that the memory is actually from a dream? I do every so often, and it always gives me a brief moment of vertigo, not being sure what's real and what's a dream memory. It helps to retrace my steps - how did I get where I am right now? Where was I before that? - to see if they make sense, and if so they're probably real.

It doesn't happen often, but it happens just enough to make me slightly uneasy about memory.
posted by echo target at 11:05 PM on February 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


I kept a journal from May, 1965 to September, 1966. This was my first journal, and I didn't have a clear idea how to do it, so I made a few bad foundational decisions, editorialwise, I mean. The journal began the month we left Okinawa for combat deployment at Bien Hoa, South Vietnam, and ended almost 17 months later, when I left that country. I'd put that book away when I got on the airplane home, and didn't look at it again until about 1992. I couldn't read it. I couldn't throw it away. I relegated it to storage in various places, to make sure that I would never see what was written in it.

Then I changed my mind. That's a long story, but the relevant part here is that the entries in journal and my memories didn't much resemble each other, except in flashes and images--still frames with fuzzy edges. Dark stuff, with no context. I was unable to read it in one sitting, and even then I had to go back over certain areas a few times to make myself focus.

I am no longer simply the kid who wrote those things, did those things. I am that person with years, layers of experience and judgement added to the mix. Something like looking into the mirror, but your image doesn't behave the way you'd like it to behave. Anyhow, my memory needed to be tweaked, and I'm glad I did it.

Several things stand out. I was shocked to see things (written there) that I thought I'd never forget, but had. Also, some of the memories I carried never happened to me--they were things someone else told me, and I had internalized them. More subtle slippage, in that sometimes I wrote several page of bullshit--not lies, just circumscriptions, soldierly evasions, using standard war-story phrases--while trying to say something, and that something never quite made the trip from my mind to the paper. Yet thirty years later I could see between the lines. I know what I couldn't say then. It it truly wierd how we are able to store little packets of reality without knowing it, and when the right stimulus comes along, all the little itches and aromas, textures and sensations waft up to command the senses, like a fugue, if you please.

Mostly, though, when I read that journal I was surprised, as if I were seeing the kid who wrote it in person for the first time. All these years I'd thought him to be an asshole, but looking back at him now, he wasn't all that bad, just young, and without much of a perspective with which to deal with the impossible things he was witnessing. Doing. He was better at his job than I remember.

This is a good thing, but not a big thing. It's good because now, when someone thanks me for my service I don't have to bite back the bitter ripostes. I just appreciate the gesture for what it means (to me), and nod and say you are welcome. In the past few years I have been able to write several essays about "what it means to me" or at least touch upon several facets related to that theme. I get to go to the snark locker there, and at my leisure, eviscerate the unwary smiley-face buzzwordy nitwit who thinks I care what he thinks about my service. First time someone said that to me, though, I had to sit down and take some measured breaths. Couldn't stop the tears.

I owe it all to the difference between what I remembered and what I wrote down in that 17-month period. It set up an energy transfer, like between a positive and negative pole. I believe I have pretty much established an equilibrium. I can truly say that, although I never was the man I used to be, I ain't like that anymore.
posted by mule98J at 12:11 AM on February 3, 2013 [131 favorites]


Even if the underlying mechanism of a false memory is exposed... this may not alter the sense of actual lived experience or reality that such memories have. Nor, for that matter, may the obvious contradictions or absurdity of certain memories alter the sense of conviction or belief. For the most part the people who claim to be abducted by aliens are not lying when they speak of how they were taken into alien spaceships, any more than they are conscious of having invented a story—some truly believe that this is what happened.

Once such a story or memory is constructed, accompanied by vivid sensory imagery and strong emotion, there may be no inner, psychological way of distinguishing true from false—or any outer, neurological way...

Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences...


Not only that, but...
Pourquoi faut-il que nous ayons assez de mémoire pour retenir jusqu’aux moindres particularités de ce qui nous est arrivé, et que nous n’en ayons pas assez pour nous souvenir combien de fois nous les avons contées à une même personne?

Why must it be that our memory is capable of retaining even the minutest details of what has happened to us, but is not capable of remembering how many times we have retold them to one and the same person ?
                                              La Rochefoucauld, Maximes, N. 313
posted by y2karl at 1:22 AM on February 3, 2013 [9 favorites]


Thank you for sharing, mule98J, powerful stuff. Do you feel that your young self was a strong writer (as you obviously are now), or is that something you accreted over years?

Speaking of good writing, Sacks always presents an aura of gentle, non-judgmental musing, erudite, even a little whimsical - I find it impossible to resist. Thanks for sharing.

More broadly, I think the piece, and mule98J's comment, attest to the power of stories, and the importance of the stories that we choose to tell ourselves. For me, I think, this dynamic is most obvious in my family. With four siblings and divorced parents (after 26 years of marriage), there are so many narratives twining into each other - irreconcilable, in some cases.

In my own case, I would like to think that it gives me more generosity, even mercy, than I might otherwise have, if I was basing reality on my own family-stories.

Sadly, this is not wholly true. I still have little sinkholes of bitterness, fear, resentment, sadness. I don't know if I dare confront the stories those realities are premised on. In some cases it took me so long to tell the stories, the thought of spending all those years denying them, only to finally acknowledgment their impact on my life, and then have have them melt away like fairy gold, would be too much. There's too much of me standing on them to look down and risk a fall.

Indeed, I think this process of interior narrative is generally an organic, even unconscious one. People tend to go to counsellors and the like to tell new stories about themselves, and it's hard, and it's - usually, hopefully I suppose - gradual. I wonder how fast we can change our memories and selves by consciously adopting new stories. Or is it like magic, and no fun at all if we see the trick?
posted by smoke at 1:45 AM on February 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Pourquoi faut-il que nous ayons assez de mémoire pour retenir jusqu’aux moindres particularités de ce qui nous est arrivé, et que nous n’en ayons pas assez pour nous souvenir combien de fois nous les avons contées à une même personne?

Why must it be that we have enough memory to retain the smallest details of what has happened to us, and not enough to remember how many times we have told them to the same person?

(Improvable, but substantially accurate.)

Goddam it, La Rochefoucauld is about parallelism.
posted by Wolof at 2:58 AM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Better — Why must we have enough memory to remember the tiniest details of our own experience, but not enough to remember how many times we've told the story to the same person?
posted by Wolof at 3:05 AM on February 3, 2013


Thank you mule98J - I have been thinking about your post. It has so many profound implications. I wish there were more people like you.

After reading that, it seems banal to post something ordinary.
I had a childhood memory from when I was tiny - maybe two. I was walking with my uncle along a field of cows. The grass was high, insects were summing. It was wonderful.
In my family, there was an anecdote about my grandfather bringing me along to buy eggs from the nearby farmer, and whatever funny two-year-old stuff I said on that trip.
Suddenly I realized this was the same day, the same little walk to the neighbors' house, and talking about his cows. I had thought it was my uncle because my grandfather was so young when I was two. When I realized this, I discovered something wonderful and something terrible: the wonderful thing was that this little piece of magic and wonder in my life was shared by my grandfather. It became a family anecdote because he was as happy as me that day. The terrible thing was that my personal memory was lost - it became integrated into the anecdote, and I could never recover it. Now, I can no longer see this from the perspective of a toddler. I see it from above, as is I were the adult.
posted by mumimor at 7:18 AM on February 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


... later you realize that the memory is actually from a dream ...

I have dreams where I realize that I'm in a dream and I have dreamed this before; but have I really, or is the memory an illusion of the current dream.

It lends some weight to the notion that everything is an illusion.
posted by Bruce H. at 7:30 AM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


smoke & mumimor....thank you for your kind words. I was a lousy writer. Whatever strengths I now have began to develop in the the late seventies to mid eighties, when I undertook a long-term effort to learn to write effectively. Nobody is born being a competant writer, and I doubt that anybody ever became one without working at it. Gifted writers are rare, and they stand out because their gift is insight. They still have to learn to write. I notice that many good writers inhabit the blue. I'll bet they would agree that good writing is less about having a gift, and more about being willing to destroy your precious little sentences in favor of paragraphs that say better what you had in mind. Conventions render some things (such as the short essay I wrote above) less troublesome that they would be if I hadn't spent many months learning to throw stuff out.

If I had possessed this insight way back in the day my journal would have looked like a grocery list.

I can't agree more--that using a record (such as a journal) to compare to one's memory is an invaluable tactic for what is called "personal growth". For example, not all that long ago I had an occasion, for some reason, to think about my second ex-wife, The Dragon Lady. Usually I don't think about her much on account of the pain and humiliation associated with her memories. Anyhow, I was thinking about something that had happened, and I had the sudden realization that she may have had a point after all. This was a somewhat novel idea for me, and to tell you the truth, I was a bit depressed to realize what I jerk I'd been at the time. After the first flush of humilation had passed, I felt liberated. A yoke lifted off me. I was an asshole, but I got over it, and what's more I can look back on it and be ashamed. So maybe I've changed a little, was the net feeling. All things considered--since I can't change the past--that personal movement has to have been a good thing. Even better, this epiphany created a ripple effect, and I was able to get a few other things off my chest, as it were, as a result.

My earliest memories are when I was about two years old. Some family stories give me an elevated perspective of those images (I see me, the toddler from the viewpoint of a tall person), and a few old pictures of me as a toddler reveal me, the little darling, all dimples and wispy hair. Nowadays my internal images are sort of claustrophobic, as if I had a mosquito net over my head, so the universe ends only a few meters away, and of course the surrounding landscape is blurred, probably more by time than my own infantile myopia.

After I read my Vietnam journal I sorted out some of the doings in it to present to Patrolling Magazine, the official publication of the 75th Ranger Association. I have also sorted them out, and re-written them as a series of anecdotes. I'm doing the same for some of my other journals. This effort represents my self-serving legacy, so that my son and the grandkids will have something to keep in a storage locker, or use to light their woodstoves, after I slide over to the other side.
posted by mule98J at 11:12 AM on February 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


Douglas Adams always said that the title Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy had come to him in 1971 while lying broke and drunk in a field in Innsbruck and looking up at the stars as he traveled around Europe with a copy of the Hitch-hiker's Guide to Europe at his side.

Later in life (Adams died in 2001 at age 49), he'd say that he had told this story so many times that he no longer had any real memory of the original incident, only of recounting it to others, at, as it were, second-hand.
 
posted by Herodios at 12:32 PM on February 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


I was on a medication some years back (paxil) that as far as I can tell, caused some of my dreams to be "stored" as actual memories.
I would have episodes where some thing like "oh I can use my airplane" followed by by a mental WTF as the whole memory involving the said airplane would fall apart, and leave me stumped for a few seconds trying to figure out what was real.
These memories did not hold up well to scrutiny, but for awhile I felt like I had to double check anything that was suspicious.
I had a dream one time that I was a soldier landing at Normandy. I was so traumatized that my day to day life for a week seemed trite and surreal. It was still disturbing 20yrs later.
posted by boilermonster at 9:33 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would have episodes where some thing like "oh I can use my airplane" followed by by a mental WTF as the whole memory involving the said airplane would fall apart, and leave me stumped for a few seconds trying to figure out what was real.

This happened to me a lot as a teenager, only without medication. I did have a fairly significant psychotic break later, I wonder if that's related.
posted by KathrynT at 11:05 PM on February 3, 2013


Later in life (Adams died in 2001 at age 49), he'd say that he had told this story so many times that he no longer had any real memory of the original incident, only of recounting it to others, at, as it were, second-hand.

Reminds me of something Alison Bechdel said about making a comic of her coming out story:

"Drawing my coming out story seemed like a natural thing to do. It's one of the important stories of my life. It was hard to pare down the complexity of the experience into a cohesive narrative, and there are many, many things that by necessity were left out or simplified. Sometimes I regret having written this piece because it's had the effect of 'freezing' the story for me. Now when someone asks me how I came out, I feel like I'm quoting myself."

Great link, thanks parudox.
posted by Kit W at 3:49 AM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


One of the things I found most amazing about rereading my high school journals was how it was a primary source that taught me that my memory lies. I'd forgotten things that should've been Legendary (wait, we played cards with our hero/crush? What?) and changed other events in unsubtle ways.

The other thing that I found fascinating is that my best friend and I had shared those times, and we had shared memories - often the same wrong or slightly adjusted ones, but sometimes totally different memories of the same event. Amazing stuff, that unremarkable high school journal. It made me a lot more humble about memory going forward.
posted by ldthomps at 2:26 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I owe it all to the difference between what I remembered and what I wrote down in that 17-month period.

The purpose of literature, essentially. Res audita perit, litera scripta manet.
posted by jokeefe at 4:58 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


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