On the unreliability of memory

There is a lot to be said for the traditional summer break of the professional middle classes; decamping from the hot, busy city to a quiet rural retreat, there to enjoy the simple peasant lifestyle. Of course I am referring to that fantasy peasant lifestyle that involves loafing around, consuming copious quantities of artisanal foodstuff and quaffing the local intoxicant, rather than any actual peasant lifestyle of unremitting toil, but it’s nice to imagine that one is getting back in touch with the slower pace of life enjoyed by our forefathers.

I always come back from my summer holiday determined to escape the rat race by finally getting down to writing the classic novel that I am convinced dwells within me. For a couple of weeks I spend my lunchtimes in the coffee shop tapping at my laptop, then life starts to intrude, and my grand projects fade away for another year.

In some ways it’s reassuring that my life is interesting enough that I don’t really have time to devote to literary endeavour, but it’s also a little frustrating to think that with some more application I could produce something a bit more impressive than this blog.

A few times in the last year, most recently just a couple of months ago, I’ve resolved to post less about Second Life, and more about interesting things, like politics, or literature, or music, but every time I seem to have found myself coming back to commenting about the virtual world. I think there’s some avoidance going on on my part; it’s easier to recycle the same old stuff about SL than take a chance on trying something new.

I spent several evenings last week reading my old copies of American Splendor, and thinking that, if Harvey Pekar could get it together to present slices of his life experience to the world back in the 70’s, when self-publishing was a real challenge, I should be able to do something more productive with this space, with which, in theory at least, I could reach a worldwide audience of millions with a couple of clicks of a mouse.

I have over the years posted a few vaguely Pekaresque pieces (mostly tagged “Nostalgia”), but I find it hard to be completely accurate in my recollection. It’s not that I actively make stuff up – the basic facts are all there – but when I try to reconstruct the subjective elements, like the emotions and motivations that were associated with these past events, I can’t help but be aware that my memories will have been extensively edited by my unconscious in the light of my subsequent life experience. I can’t put myself back into the mind of my past self, only the mind of my present self thinking about the past, and I know that means that what seem like solid memories are really projections of my current preoccupations woven out of carefully selected snippets of history.

The drive is to create a narrative, to give meaning to what, on more objective analysis, I would have to admit was an essentially random existence. Like an author foreshadowing significant events in a story, I give weight to certain memories, while suppressing others, to convince myself that my current situation is a point on a consciously planned journey, rather than the culmination of a series of individually insignificant choices that have gradually limited my options in ways I can only vaguely grasp.

Does it matter that my thoughts about the past may not entirely correspond with reality? Human memory is not a simple recording device; it is a dynamic psychological tool that allows us to adapt to the present and anticipate the future by utilising our processed experience. Excessive verisimilitude in our recollections can get in the way of efficient functioning, and a little mnemonic creativity is essential to our continued sanity.

One way to conceptualise the self is to see it as, at any given moment, the sum of the biographical memories that seem relevant to our present circumstances, the story we tell ourselves about who we are. We take the continuity of our self as a given, but our memory of who we were yesterday is under the control of our present selves, and we may distort it to preserve the illusion of stable identity. Of course we can observe that other people seem more or less the same from day to day, which may reassure us that we don’t change much either, but there is always the suspicion that the unconscious is our own personal Ministry of Truth.

Anyway, the conclusion that I draw from all this is that the past is gone and probably wasn’t how I remembered it anyhow, the future is uncertain and will take care of itself, and the best thing to do is just live in the now. I guess that’s why I never manage to get anything done. Maybe I should give up on the literary pretensions, and start writing self-help books instead.

4 Responses to On the unreliability of memory

  1. I hope you don’t abandon the book, I am waiting to read it.

    And I’m sure you’ve probably seen this from Daniel Kahneman, but just in case. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgRlrBl-7Yg

    • johnny says:

      Well according to iwl.me, my writing is exactly like that of James Joyce, so it might be worth waiting for. I wouldn’t hold my breath though.

      I remember watching the Kahneman video when you blogged about it a few months ago, or maybe I’m just imagining that memory, because today I feel like telling myself that I’m the sort of person that would have watched it. Either way I don’t really agree with his idea that the “Remembering Self” calls the shots. I think that the largely unconscious “Experiencing Self” is very much in charge, with the “Remembering Self” performing the subsidiary role of providing a post-hoc rationalisation that preserves the illusion of conscious agency.

      There was an interesting review in Science the other week that suggested that the subconscious may be much more in control of our actions than we like to think.

  2. I’ve always wondered if Graphite in an Apollo 17 Impact Melt Breccia was somehow tied to our subconscious 😉

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