Monday, January 5, 2009

Building a Memory…

Memories are fashioned. Their built in much the same way we build with Lego or bake a cake. Once built a memory is rarely ever static – it changes as we retell it or bring it back to consciousness. So a memory is constantly being rebuilt. This is not a problem really except with how we normally conceive of memories. We rely on memories to hold together our identities – to keep all the important facts straight about who we are (or more precisely were). We also depend on memories to help us make sense of what happens in the present – it gives a context to fit our experiences. Most of all trust our memories to tell the truth – since most of us are reluctant to admit that we would consciously lie to ourselves we faithfully use our memories as evidence about what is real and what most certainly is not.

Memories are slippery. Surely you've witnessed the story told by a friend more than once. Each telling is a little different than the first telling. Char often 'gets' to hear me tell the same story over and over again. Although it is hardly a conscious thing – each telling of the story is adapted slightly. The recollection is altered to accommodate speed of telling, eliminate uninteresting details, include details pertinent to the context of each telling of the story, and so on. It's hardly the same story every time. But surely just because something is retold especially in ever so slight variations, does not mean that what actually happened changes. Certain not. But what actually happened – in all its specific glory – is rarely very relevant. We are only actually interested in those parts of the memory that are useful in some way. Recalling who pulled the trigger in a murder scene is useful in determining where guilt should lie. But there are actually thousands of details about that same scene that we care nothing about and could not even recount. So our attention is drawn then to those details that seem to be most useful. But if its true that memories are slippery then how are we to know that even those details that we or others find most relevant are reliable. We don't know. Consider magicians for a moment. Their craft is built on helping us to focus on details that prevent us from seeing how the 'trick' is being preformed. This is not because we are lazy but because our brain is designed in such a way are to focus on those things which it can reason as most important. We simply cannot process the multitude of extraneous information available to our sense at any given moment. But this is hardly the most slippery part of memory. If memory was not slippery cross-examination would be pointless at a trial. Our memories can change in the telling so that in the telling we are not merely recounting some fact as if it were an absolute number but we are actually believing what we are remembering. What we believe in then is not what actually happened since it is no longer available to us completely an since we have actually changed it – even if ever so slightly.

We are not typically bothered by this slippery nature of memory. We can tolerate minor changes in the story as long as the main points remain the same. We also are hardly ever interested in listening to or telling the whole complete story. And of course we hold certain rememberances in higher esteem than others. If it is written down it is usually more trusted as the authentic expression of what took place. A statement to police or a biography are relied on as more important sources. But written documents have a crucial flaw. They not only write into permanence those things that are consider to have happened but also just as concretely write out those things which are deemed not to have happened (whether due to insignificance or otherwise). Some of the most controversial sections of the Bible are precisely those that do not say or can (no longer) say important information about where when and how certain events happened (Take the great flood for instance). The permanence of the record becomes highly problematic when building a definitive natural history for example. So a text's strength immediately becomes its weakness.

What it all boils down to is this: memories are not nearly as useful in determining the actual content of the past as they are in telling us about the people who hold the memories and tell them. And this is very useful information indeed. Far more useful than what we commonly refer to as 'the facts'. Facts are hardly irrelevant. They are just not nearly as useful for constructing faith, belief and trust as they are commonly seen to be. Knowing what is left unsaid and unremembered is easily as useful for that. Convictions are better served by carefully extracting out from behind the 'facts' the ideas that have motivated the fashioning of these 'facts'. But this means that we approach memories with an intrinsically counter-intuitive perspective. I suggest that doubt – that fine art of intelligent (and not simply dismissive) questioning – ought to walk side by side with belief. The two should haunt each other always.


Natasha said...

How the brain rebuilds memories is an interesting thing. One of the most fascinating things from one of my psych classes involved this - first, it was pointed out to me that when you remember something you did - say you went swimming - you don't remember it from the same view that you had in reality. You remember with a "bird's eye" view and see yourself in the memory as if you are above yourself or out of the picture. So, we recall memories with a view that we could not have possibly had in reality. That in itself hints at the deceiving nature of our memories.

You also mentioned crime scenes and hinted at the problems that come about with eye witnesses. One area of memories that I think has so much potential for the criminal justice system is brain scans. Of course, right now, the equipment is too big/expensive/complicated to use in all court rooms, but with technology you never know what the future could hold... the point though, is that when someone is hooked up to all of these machines and their brain is being "watched", science can actually tell to a certain degree whether or not the person is telling the truth. This is because, (as I assume you alredy know), when we recall a memory, each piece of it comes from a different part of the brain. For instance, our visual memories are stored in a different place than our audio memories, than our smell memories and so on. So, when we remember, the brain sends all these different puzzle pieces from different areas, and what we end up with is the whole of the memory. So, pretend that you are in a conversation with someone and you say "Oh you know that new bakery on 5th street? It's so good." and the person replies "Oh yea, I love that place", but let's say they actually don't know the bakery or what you are talking about... well, if they were hooked up to all the machines, then we'd see that even though they say they have been there, the brain is not sending any activity from the
"visual area", meaning the person actually has no stored images of this bakery in their brain. So, if we look at that in terms of the legal system, it could be huge in sorting out eye witnesses. I thought this was just incredibly fascinating when we studied it... so much potential there and still so little that we actually know about the human mind and how it works.

Increasing... said...

And of course th idea that memories are 'stored' in the way we might think of files in cabinet is misleading as well. There is not a cell or group of molecules that exists that contains the memory of my first kiss. We are essentially talking about series of configured and appropriated neural connections. (This you likely are also already aware of)
You're absolutely correct about the zones of the brain and the 'out of body' perspective.
What is facinating in all of this for me is how we have constructed our world on the more concrete conceptions of how the mind works. I think people might be bothered that the contents of thier memories might be considered factual in an absolute way. And it surely affects our construction of the most important convictions that we base our lives on. I am sure that suggesting that our concept of God is (subjectively)constructed might be troubling for some. Especially since we might have to admit that each person's construction of God is different than that of anyone else. But then as I the 'stuff' behind our memories are far more important than the actual contents of those memories.
The other thing that I did not mention is just how merciless memories are. Sartre suggests that we are condemned to remember. We are at the mercy of our memories even as we are agents of thier construction. Memories can come unbidden - unprovoked. So there we are produced by and producing our memories.
thanks for the thoughful response

Natasha said...

I like that - "we are produced by and producing" our memories. It is so true what you say about how all of this relates to our concept of God. I went through a period of large doubt, questioning my past experiences with God, because so many of them were largely based on sensory experiences where I believed that I felt/saw/heard something that "proved" the existence of God. But, by and large, I have no validation besides my own mind and if I can't trust my own memories, well then, you can see what conclusion that may lead me to about my own faith. To this day, I still question whether or not my experiences with God have been nothing more than my own creation, or reality that I twisted in my mind in order to give me something firm to cling to when I "remember". So many passages in the Bible speak about remembering; about building sign posts or altars at certain places so that people can go back and remember what God did there and then. So certainly, God himself (duh..sounds so dumb to say this!) knows how important the human memory experience is in relation to our faith. It seems by and large "confirmed" in our hearts through our mind's experience.