Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Frailities of Memory

In the foreword to his Collected Stories Wallace Stegnor says of autobiography:

'I am not to be trusted with it. I hate the restrictiveness of facts. I can't control my impulse to rearrange, suppress, add, heighten, invent and improve. Accuracy means less to me than suggestiveness; my memory is as much an inventor as a recorder'.

And in his foreword to 'Trying to Save Piggy Sneed', an autobiography, John Irving writes:

'This is a memoir, but please understand that (to any writer with a good imagination) all memoirs are false. A fiction writer's memory is an especially imperfect provider of detail; we can always imagine a better detail than the one we can remember. The correct detail is rarely, exactly, what happened; the most truthful detail is what could have happened, or what should have. Half my life is an act of revision; more than half the act is performed with small changes.'

A few years ago I put together a small book of childhood memories as a genealogical effort. I was inspired by the excitement and satisfaction I had experienced whenever I found a tidbit about the life of one of the ancestors, and the yearning I felt to know more of the times they lived in, of their personalities, their passions, and the circumstances of their lives.

I tried very hard to write things as I remembered them; not to embellish or rearrange or invent. However, even then I was painfully aware that the integrity of our memories does not always bear up with those who have shared the same childhood experiences, and I have long been puzzled that memories of the same childhood experiences can be recalled positively by one person and unhappily by another.

Recent neurological research into the process by which the brain stores both working (short term) and long term memories are fascinating, but I have yet to read anything about the interpretation of the memory in respect to the way we receive it and the effect it has upon our lives.

Suzanne Warren, while a student at Bryn Mawr, expands upon the contents of a book 'The Society of Mind' written by Marvin Minsky, a philosopher and scientist and a leading expert on artificial intelligence. In this book he presents his conception of human intellectual structure and function, and defines memory as a holistic neural activity, involving many different areas and processes of the brain in an intricately choreographed dance. .

I have taken part in a U.K. online experiment to test Short Term Memory, and discovered the secrets of remembering small lists, and whether, when I pause on the landing, I can remember if I am going upstairs or downstairs.

But it is the secrets of Long Term memory that intrigue me.

I am sure that my childhood engendered unhappy memories, but it is the happy memories that are prevalent in my recall. Why is this so? I have a feeling that it is all caught up in the controversy regarding spiritualism/materialism and the argument concerning the existence of a Soul.

A great number of years ago I attended a class on creative writing, and was criticized for the lack of a counterpoint of laughter and tears, and of 'hurt' flowing through the pages of a project on childhood memories. Probably a very valid criticism when considering the quality and appeal of the writing, but I can remember at the time questioning my memory and searching for the hurt and tears which would have made my writing more acceptable.

I continue to be mystified by the relative qualities of our long term memory, and uncomfortable when I consider that the memories that are dear and familiar to me are not necessarily the plain unvarnished truth! When a tune, or a fragrance helps me to re-experience a moment from the past I would like to think that the happiness it engenders has some integrity!

Here is a picture from the past that makes me smile, an affectionate memory of a day of cousins that brings me pleasure.

Were we really that sunny, or were there small slights and hurts that happened that if I had been of a different disposition would darken the memory for me???

Nice that there is time to contemplate these questions.

And to discover more about Marvin Minsky. After a cursory perusal of his writing and his thoughts I am considering that Marvin Minsky has many theories to de-mystify the human experience. Is this good??? Well, probably quite splendid to a humanist.....

1 comment:

The Weaver of Grass said...

Hi Hildred! Thanks for visiting my blog. I love your part of the world and know a lot of your country from frequent visits.
I do so agree about memory - I am sure we select, subconsciously, what we want to remember. I remembered a concert we gave at our junior school, when we had evacuees during the war - I could remember every line I said. My old school friend, who i only meet once a year, could not remember the concert at all and yet it had been the highlight of our lives because it was so sophisticated to our country ways. Call and se eme again. I have put you on my blog list.