summer/fall 2007 no. 9
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summer/fall 2007 no. 9
The Lie of Memory
by Eric D. Lehman
Memory works in strange ways. Scientists are still unsure how it is stored, and even more baffled by the fact that it seems to change over time. How do events we perceive as objective reality become muddled fantasy? Why do people forget something for years, and then suddenly it pops into their minds? What makes certain neurons fire and not others? Where? When? Scientists don’t like chaos.
It is unfortunate for them, then, that our minds warp and fluctuate constantly, providing no apparent regularity. Most of the time, memory seems to eliminate disturbing events from the mental map and keep nice clean highways to the neural nodes of the pleasant ones, like the soccer match in which you scored the winning goal or the first cooking lesson from your mother. Sometimes the opposite is true and bad ones, like those of your leg breaking or your mother dying, rush to the forefront like nomadic raiders. During those times, memories of a beautiful moment of connection, a particularly erotic experience, or a fascinating conversation all seem distant or secondary to the wave of loathsome invaders. All of this fluctuation depends on the everchanging perspective and mood of the mapmaker.
For example, I have an ex-girlfriend from college (we’ll call her Ingrid) of whom I have a host of good and bad memories. Occasionally, when I find her inscription in a book on my shelf, pleasant and nostalgic feelings come back. I remember the long walks we took along the flowering country roads of Ohio. But another day a television commercial featuring Chichen Itza might trigger memories of our awful trip to the Yucatan, breaking up and tormented, full of venom and jungle madness.
Even worse, although other sources assure me that we had long conversations and a lot in common, my current memory fails when I try to recall more than a few shared words. If she and I were to meet again after all these years, the recollections of our history might well come back, one-by-one. Between the two of us, we could piece together a string of events and conversations, digging through our brains to discover long-lost fragments, and build a story of memory from them. I suppose that if she and I were to revisit Kenyon College, spend time at these places, certain memories would be reinforced, others would be restructured. If we never see Gambier, Ohio again, never see each other, each memory will dilute in the ocean of disuse.
The worst element of our unreliable neural nets is their seeming ability to lie to us. A pertinent example may be the way Ingrid and I met. Ingrid told me that she saw me for the first time in Archaeology class during her first year at Kenyon. Apparently I walked in one day with my long hair pulled back under a blue bandanna and she suddenly noticed me. I never noticed her, but since the class was at 8:30 in the morning, I have some excuse. We actually bumped into each other once that year, because she was moving into my apartment suite the next September and came by to check it out, awaking me from a deep sleep. I remember the event, but she made no impression on me.
When the fall semester began, my former girlfriend dumped me. I was devastated, but had expected as much. I was moping around and a friend told me to can it, since “you’ll have another girlfriend in two weeks.” He was right. I formally met Ingrid through a mutual friend and started to fall for her green eyes and contagious smile. The first time we touched, I believe, we were at a party in one of the dark basement fraternity lounges in Old Kenyon Hall and she just pulled me out onto the empty dance floor, seemingly indifferent to my rhythmically challenged performance. Later, I discovered that this was uncharacteristically bold, but at the time I was impressed. “This girl is cool,” I thought. We danced that night, flirting with our eyes, but nothing happened.
A few nights later, we were hanging out in the ninth floor apartment in Caples Hall, the suite I lived in the year before. We started dancing to a CD that she was playing, bopping our heads and moving closer and closer. I could smell her flowery hair spray. Then, in a moment I liked to believe was brave, I leaned in and kissed her sloppily. She returned the kiss, swinging her arms around my neck. “I’ve wanted to do that for a while,” I said, smiling in what I hoped was a disarming way. “I’m glad you did,” she said, smiling with what I hoped was genuine affection. After the music stopped, I left, bouncing across campus to my own dorm.
Is this exactly as it happened? I thought so. But when questioned, Ingrid recalled some of these events differently. She told me that I was wrong, that we didn’t kiss until the next night, that I called her up and asked if I could come over to her room. She said, “of course,” and when I got there, we kissed in the doorway, then had a long talk about the situation. I had remembered the place, but maybe not the circumstances. So, did I need to change what I believed was fact, history, truth? If I wanted to share this memory with Ingrid, one of us did.
This is where the unreliability of our neural nets began to truly seem problematic. Either or neither of our versions could have been “correct” or “real.” And that brings us to a troubling realization. As time goes by, our memories will be rewritten, whether from reconciliation with other “facts,” our own aging wiring, or too many gin and tonics. We could be amalgamating and collecting several of our own memories into one, as it appears I did with the two “first” dates. It is a mistake to think that a supposedly true or real memory will be ordered properly by time. Either the event will meet oblivion or chaos will continue to have its way.
I assured myself that at some point I must have had a primal memory of that date. However, that “actual” recall was still from my own unique perspective. It was highlighted by a thousand other experiences, a host of sensory prejudices, and the fact that I was still hung up on my previous girlfriend. And every subsequent time we “remember” something, that memory is colored by our present set of circumstances. For instance, writing this has triggered a memory of the uncertainty and hurt of my last conversation with Ingrid, when she told me that her current boyfriend wouldn’t allow her to see me anymore. “He’s my world now,” she asserted. But my current state of being, happy in love and nearly married myself, completely veils any pain I might have felt. “It wasn’t so bad, and besides, it led me to this present happy state,” my brain tells itself. And so not only the perception, but the memory itself changes and warps, transforming what I’m sure was a weepy mess into a story about our romantic unsuitability.
When we re-inscribe our memories like this, the past can seem riddled with incongruities that need adjusting to. When two people try to reconcile their memories, the situation can get worse. This often leads to further transformations of memory, whether slight or great, conscious or subconscious. I can live with two or more versions of an event in my own head, and two people can certainly disagree without necessarily leading to conflict. But these threadlike connections help weave the tapestry of friendship and harmony, and without at least some points of reference, humans have difficulty getting along. So, we occasionally fictionalize our experiences to match other versions. And sometimes, through no purposeful action of ours, our minds themselves adjust to the situation.
My clearest example of this phenomenon is the occasion Ingrid and I went to see the band Pearl Jam on Randall’s Island in New York. Small, white flowers were handed out and Ingrid slipped two into her curly hair. When Pearl Jam took the stage, the crowd transformed into a frenzied river of bodies, crushing us. The danger of being pulled under and trampled to death became very real. Ingrid started crying and screaming and some security guards helped her over the railing. I couldn’t get over, trapped by the floods of flesh, and elbowed my way back through the pagan throng, stepping on knees and hips indiscriminately. After a nail-biting wait, Ingrid burst out of the backstage area and collapsed in my arms. She had been carried to the oxygen tent and given a full dose. We spent the rest of the concert in an open area farther back from the stage, jumping, singing, and dancing. Once in a while we held hands. When the first trembling notes of our favorite song sounded, the chalky sky opened up and let loose a torrent of warm rain. The flowers never left her hair.
Is that the string of details we originally both remembered? Could we possibly have had the same sensory experience amidst all that chaos? I have no idea, because that is the story we shared two years later, a myth that helped us prolong our relationship, and now it is the only version left. I don’t recall eating food at the event, though of course we must have. I can’t picture crossing the Triborough Bridge or watching the opening band. And did the rain begin exactly when those perfect musical notes sounded? It seems outrageously coincidental. In essence, what happened is that we created another fiction, an overlapping memory that harmonized the chaos of the river of time into some stable form that we could agree on, if only for a moment.
These overlapping circles of remembrance, like invisible Venn diagrams, connect in curved segments and give the illusion of synchronicity. This is how two friends, reminiscing over beers about a hiking exploit, can reconcile their accounts and spend a pleasant hour toasting their victory. This is how we can read a passage in a book and find that it matches exactly the thoughts that we previously believed were ours alone. And occasionally, improbably, this is how a husband and wife can seem to hold the exact same memory, can share a knowing look across the kitchen table that says "I remember,” no matter how they deliberate the event in limited words. Our minds slide the Venn circles of memory on top of each other, seeming to crystallize some shared event or idea. Whenever this happens, I marvel at the mind’s ability to fight its own entropy. Why could two people possibly have the same perspective? How could they? We do not step into the same river twice, and the infinite deceits that memory practices could lead to infinite divergences between people.
But they do not. And those slight adjustments we make, those subtle fictions that dispute the lie of memory, grant the shared meaning that helps build harmony between us all.
Copyright © 2007 Entelechy: Mind & Culture. New Paltz, NY. All rights reserved.