WAYS OF KNOWING: MEMORY

Who do you think you are?

Identity (the Self) is an intersection of “what” and “who.” The fact we inhabit a unique, distinct, incrementally changing body, mostly answers the “what” part of the question. We can appreciate this when looking at photos of ourselves at successive stages of life.

The “who” part—our memories, dispositions, aspirations, and all the revisable, private and public, autobiographical stories we construct about ourselves—is more difficult to pin down. It seems that we construe who we are. Our waking experience is anticipatory. We distill fragments of past memories and imagine what's next? 

The first of these stunning photographs of four sisters was taken in 1975.  Art photographer, Nicholas Nixon continued to take their portraits, always in black and white, annually for the next forty years! The second portrait shown here was taken in 2014. The series is archived in full in Forty Portraits in Forty Years, a 2014 New York Times Magazine article by Susan Minot.  

Nicholas Nixon is represented by the Nicholas Nixon/Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and the Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

We are never more (and sometimes less) than the co-authors of our own narratives. Only in fantasy do we live what story we please. In life… we are always under certain constraints. We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making. Each of us being a main character in his own drama plays subordinate parts in the dramas of others, and each drama constrains the others.
— Macintyre, Alisdair (1984) After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Second Edition. Notre Dame, Indiana. University of Notre Dame Press.

 

INTERLUDE: THE SHIP OF THESEUS

The Ship of Theseus is a famous philosophical thought experiment. The ancient historian, Plutarch asked whether a ship that had been restored over a period of time, by replacing every single plank and mast, remained the same ship. The idea has some bearing on how we think about embodiment and the permanence of identity. 

We know that life changes to stay the same. Most cells in the body are younger than the individual. We get a new stomach lining every few days, a new liver every couple of years and a whole new skeleton about every ten years. The Ship of Theseus analogy breaks down somewhat when we consider recent evidence that, with notable exceptions like the hippocampus, most neurons of the cerebral cortex are not replaced. (It seems that heart muscle cells are also unusual in mostly not being replaced.) 

However, the Ship of Theseus problem returns when we note that the hippocampus is critical for long-term and spatial memory. Also, zooming in further to the sub-cellular level—all cells are constantly recycling worn out macromolecules and organelles.  

Reference: Retrospective Birth Dating of Cells in Humans. Spalding et al. Cell: 122, 133-143, 15 July 2005.

 

PROUST: REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST

The reliability of Memory usually correlates directly with the vividness of the remembered experience and its nearness in time. This is not always the case. Our olfactory sense, at times, can appear to be a direct, primal, involuntary conduit to episodic memory. In literature, Proust's protagonist is instantly transported to a realm full of nostalgic sentiment and poetic detail of childhood preoccupations by the taste of a single crumb of madeleine cake soaked in lime-flavored tea.

From Stéphane Heuet's graphic novel version of Marcel Proust's masterwork In Search of Lost Time: Swann's Way.

From Stéphane Heuet's graphic novel version of Marcel Proust's masterwork In Search of Lost Time: Swann's Way.

When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
And once again I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy), immediately the old gray house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theater.
— Marcel Proust (1913): À la recherche du temps perdu. In Search of Lost Time (alternative translation: Remembrance of Things Past). Vol I: Swann's Way.


CLASS ACTIVITY: MEMENTO (2001)

In the Allegory of the Cave: Truman Show unit, I mentioned that the class had a chance to see the Memento movie. Before tapping student collective memories and, no doubt, divergent understandings of this enigmatic movie, spend some time with the introductory material on this page.

Ask student volunteers to read aloud the existential introduction, Macintyre and Proust quotes, and the Ship of Theseus paragraph. This should generate some lively, general philosophical discussion about Identity and Memory.
Printable pdf.

Short term memory is essential for even the simplest coherent action through time. Without immediate memory we cannot move from one moment to the next, lost and bewildered a meaningless succession of nows...

Students should see the Memento trailer and then find a compatible partner to discuss the following questions. This activity will morph into a graded written assignment with a twist. Students are given one week to produce a single, collaborative written response to the questions. They will be awarded the same grade. This, of course, echoes the assessment scenario for the formal TOK presentation. Most students will choose to revisit the movie in the following days their own time.
Printable pdf. of the questions.

1. Why, at the very beginning of the movie do we observe a Polaroid photograph fading instead of developing? 

2. In the movie Lenny declares:

Memory’s not perfect. It’s not even that good. Ask the police, eyewitness testimony is unreliable. The cops don’t catch a killer by sitting around remembering stuff. They collect facts, make notes, draw conclusions. Facts, not memories: that’s how you investigate. I know, it’s what I used to do. Memory can change the shape of a room or the color of a car. It’s an interpretation, not a record. Memories can be changed or distorted and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.

Identify at least three techniques Lenny uses in the movie as a surrogate memory to compensate for his "condition"?  Do they help or hinder his quest for "vengeance"? Why?

 3. The way the Memento unfolds in time, and ends with aspects unresolved, stresses, confuses and alienates the viewer. To what extent does our own experience watching the movie effectively mirror Lenny's condition? 

4. To what extent is a functional memory for the construal of experience necessary to maintain a sense of identity? In Memento is the Lenny character a non-person?  

 

CODA

Dr. Endel Tulving interviewing amnesic patient Kent Cochrane, who was involved in a motorcycle accident that left him with permanent severe amnesia.  

Dr. Endel Tulving interviewing amnesic patient Kent Cochrane, who was involved in a motorcycle accident that left him with permanent severe amnesia.  

EVIDENCE OF A TIME MACHINE IN THE BRAIN

The outstanding fact about K.C.'s mental make-up is his utter inability to remember any events, circumstances, or situations from his own life. His episodic amnesia covers his whole life, from birth to the present. The only exception is the experiences that, at any time, he has had in the last minute or two… The impairment does not encompass only the past; it also extends to the future. Thus, when asked, he cannot tell the questioner what he is going to do later on that day, or the day after, or at any time in the rest of his life. He cannot imagine his future any more than he can remember his past. This aspect of the syndrome he presents suggests that the sense of time with which autonoetic consciousness works covers not only the past but also the future... Mental time travel involves awareness not only of what has been but also of what may come. 

Endel Tulving (2002) Episodic Memory: From Mind to Brain. Annual Review of Psychology. 53:1-25,

What would be the consequences of total recall?

Not all experiential events are of equal weight. Our conscious experience generates mountains of chaff. We know that memory is necessarily selective. How do we distinguish between what is important and what is trivial?

The following extract from the Borges short story Funes the Memorius explores the dire consequences of having total recall. The tale is really an ad absurdum thought experiment, rather like his short piece On Exactitude in Science that is featured at the beginning of this TOK course in The Map is Not the Territory.

On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness, when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and trivial memories. A little later he realized he was crippled. This fact scarcely interested him. He reasoned (or felt) that immobility was a minimum price to pay. And now his memory and perception were infallible…

Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood. But even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it…

…the dizzying world of Funes. He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of general, platonic ideas. It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name at three-fifteen (seen from the front). His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him on every occasion…

I suspect… that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details.

Extract from the surrealist short story Funes the Memorious from the 1941 collection Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges.
 

Janus headdress of the Boki from Nigeria. (19th–20th century) African collection. The Met, New York. A Janus-like deity has arisen in many cultures. There are two faces. One looks to the future, the other, to the past. Janus can represent beginnings and endings, rites of passage, gateways, transitions, duality, and the passage of time. 

Janus headdress of the Boki from Nigeria. (19th–20th century) African collection. The Met, New York.

A Janus-like deity has arisen in many cultures. There are two faces. One looks to the future, the other, to the past. Janus can represent beginnings and endings, rites of passage, gateways, transitions, duality, and the passage of time. 

ARE IMAGINING AND REMEMBERING ALMOST THE SAME?

The Imagination (with constraints) and living in the subjunctive unit ended with this provocative question. The premises that go with it are worth revisiting after working through this unit.  Printable pdf. of the Time Machine in the Brain texts.

1.Imagination seems inextricable from memory. 

Compelling evidence for this comes from brain-damaged, amnesiac patients who can no sooner relate what they will do in the future, than recall what happened just a few minutes previously. in the past Such patients appear fully aware, articulate, and quite cheerful in the present moment.

2. Our lived experience feels anticipatory. 

We are always primed for action, always on a forward cognitive trajectory. We project a fictive “what if?” from a highly edited “thus far.”  As a consequence, the past and the future always seem somehow to be right there with us, constantly updated and reinvented on the fly. 

3. It seems that to a large degree we live in the subjunctive tense!

Salvador Dalí (1931) The Persistence of Memory. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Salvador Dalí (1931) The Persistence of Memory. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.