Approching the turn of the calendar year in 2020, I, like most people I think, found myself doing quite a bit of reflecting. Exhaustion with the pandemic and the never ending lockdowns has long since set in and taken its toll. While turning the page to 2021 didn’t actually promise much in the way of hoped for relief, it did seem to, if only for a brief moment, offer something symbolic- the imagining of some sort of a future. This reflecting eventually led to some renewed interest in a personal research project of mine on a subject intimately related to the future- the nature of “memory”.
I have written previously in this space about why it is that I became interested in the subject of memory, so I won’t rehash that here. But while most of my research thus far as been spent on the history of memory (as an idea) and the function of memory (as a science), I had yet to dig in to memory on a purely comparitive level, and in particular the comparitive relationship between memory past and present, and further yet the relationship of memory to how it is that we exist in the present.
To this end, I recently picked up a book by researcher Joshua Foer called Moonwalking with Einstein. While the book does carry a bit of a practical bent, taking its research and applying it specifically to some of the practicalities of memory building and memory strengthening exercises, by and large it is a powerful treaties on this comparitive exploration of memory past and memory present.
What Is Memory
One of the most striking things that I have found in my current research into the idea of memory is the basic admission that we still know so very little about it. Which is not to say there hasn’t been a lot of of headway made towards understanding what it does. At a base level though, much of the how and why of memory function remains as mysterious as those spaces in our brains where forgotten memories seem to gravitate towards. From the beginning of our awareness of memory as a function, recognized in early human development as the means by which we express our minds without the aid of developed language, to the modern age where new information now arrives at unprecedented rates, memory continues to play a critical role in human function, however different these expressions of memory might be and however negelcted these expressions of memory might have become.
What is clear in the pages of this book by Foer is that this is also true at a simple biological level, especially when seen through the simple picture of the human life span. As Foer explains, memory at birth is a curious entity in that it operates without a past. Everything is new at that age, which explains why it is that we then can’t remember our childhood until we hit age 4 and 5 (on average), because our minds as of yet have nothing to attach memories to. Everything is future oriented, essentially leaving our minds engaged in the process of building a foundation through which memories can then emerge. It is only after we have created memories, so to speak, that we are then free to interact with our memories as “experiences” which we can actively comprehend and thus translate into, well, memories. Memories that can then catapult us into the future with a functional narrative in tow. In this way, memory is at its heart a comparitive and creative exercise that requires real and actualized context to develop.
This correlates with the science of how the brains develops. In James Suzman’s book Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, he documents the uniqueness of the human brain by way of synapses. Unlike other creatures we are born basically completely dependent, our brains a quarter of the size of what they will become in our adult years (in comparison to a great ape, where they are born with a brain almost 50 percent of its adult size). This means a child’s brain is full of synapses that take in information and more information. As we grow those synapses begin to get pruned out until we are left with what these functioning synapses that can take this information and form them into active memories, memories that then propel us forward into the most essential human activity- creating, or working. Humans by nature need information, and we consume far more of it than any other creature on earth past or present.
Something similar happens when we get old, but in a slightly different fashion and context. If a crucial aspect of building and sustaining memory is in fact holding and having a future, or working and creating into the future, the very fact that in old age this future becomes smaller and memories themselves that much greater means that those spaces where memories seemingly go to be forgotten becomes increasingly active and aware and harder to retrieve. This is true simply on the basis that these memories no longer have an expansive future to be launched in to. Foer suggests that this is less about the breakdown of our brains or our inability to remember lost informaiton (information never truly gets lost, only irritrievable) and more about the ways in which memory is in fact built and developed. Debilitating diseases aside, it is possible to sustain memories well into old age by exercising our brains and keeping them healthy, but essential to this is enabling ourselves to continue to imagine a future even when that future gets smaller. Curiously, there is a good deal of study that could be done here on the role of religious conviction towards this end, especially as a belief system that understands the importance of, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, the “spiritual imagination”.
What Does Memory Do?
To dial this down a bit further yet in dialogue with Foer’s book, what precisely is it that happens when we engage the process of remembering? As with the picture of a child building a past and then applying that to a broader picture of a potential and imagined future, memory building happens when something in our present becomes distinguishable against that which is routine, ordinary and familiar within our past. If anything from Foer’s book has stuck with me the most it would be this notion- what makes life appear to move fast is when everything blurs together, when there is no ability to distinguish between one moment and the next, or one day and the next. This might sound counter intuitive, because rationality and reason appear to suggest that old familiar adage “time flies when we are having fun”. But the truth appears to be precisely the opposite. At a very immediate and most practical level, this is what makes something like this current Pandemic so difficult for so many. When it first started one could notice a collective sense of fear contrasted by a collective sense of optimism. Having a chance to press pause for the short term and make space for things long forgotten in our busy-ness seemed like a genuine, welcome and desirable opportunity. Fast forward to today and those things no longer feel like novelties. This is because at a fundamental human level we are conditioned to live in a past-present-future co-awareness. There is only so long we can thrive, and sometimes even survive when the days begin to blend into one another without much in the way of distinction. With no way to plan for and anticipate the future, we cease making “memories” in their truest forms and life begins to, retrospectively, feel like it has disappeared or never existed at all. This, by contrast, is what makes life appear like it is moving fast. Memory is something that occurs only in retrospect, flowing from and depending on our awareness of those distinguishable moments that mark our place in time and space. We call this brain mapping. It’s the same exercise we engage in when we read a paperback book, ironically a fading art in our modern world. It is onlly in looking backwards and contrasting that with our present that we can locate these moments and recognize them as a building story full of memories, which has the very real affect of then making life appear to move slowly. To think back on our memories is to gain a sense of a life full and a life lived.
Getting deeper into the technicals, many of which this book helps to outline in an accessible fashion, we get to the following helpful distctions. First is the differentiating between artificial memory, that which we create and can manipulate, and natural memory, that which is generally unconscious and which drives much of our decisions and our choices. What’s important about artificial memory, which makes up the smaller portion of our memory systems, is that these represent the minute ways in which we can actually and willfully affect change in our lives, even as natural memory, the much larger portion of our memory systems, is what allows us to continue to function on a day to day level.
And then there is the difference between episodic and semantic memories. Episodic memories are located in time and space (as Foer suggests, concerned with where and when), while semantic memory is located outside of time and space (free flowing knowledge). This connects directly to the relationship between explicit and implicit memories. Explicit (declarative) memories are things you know that you need to remember, or that you know you remember, while implicit (non-declarative) memories are unconscious memories, things that you remember but that you are unaware that you remember. Thus explicit memories, like artificial memories deal with awareness in the immediate. They provide short term opportunity to enact real change and to shape our stories in specific ways. The unconscious memory in contrast doesn’t travel through the same short term memory circuits as explicit ones do. In terms of what dominates our lives, most of what we remember and what drives our choices is unconscious, while what we knowingly remember and thus can manipulate accordingly makes up a much smaller fraction of who we are. And yet there is an intimate and important relationship that exists between these two kinds of memories in terms of how we function and shape the human story. While one shapes who we are, the other shapes who we become, and who we become requires a very real trust in who we are, which is largely the sum of our unconcious awareness. In other words, memory making is a very real exercise in faith.
External and Internal Memory Making
Perhaps most important for the larger comparitive discussion of the history of memory and the function of memory in our present day is this notion of external and internal memory. What’s important to note here is that while external memory is all about the recording and capturing of memory in physical and material ways external to our being (such as writing it down), our brains developed and are conditioned towards internal memory function, that which we internalize and thus know as functioning knowledge. If there is one defining and disinguishing mark of the work of memory in history and the work of memory today, it is the simple fact that we now exist in an environment where most of our memories are captured by systems external to us. We not only have these external systems that contain our memories, we continue to build more and more of them out of necessity and dependency. This has the very real and measurable effect of eroding our ability to remember in internalizing fashions, and perhaps most strikingly has the most immediate impact on the very real essenence of what makes us “us”- our ability to understand our selves and our life as story through the development of connecting the explicit and the artificial to the unconscious or natural memory. In short, it has eroded our brains abiliy to the do the work our brains were developed to do. We might see it most in an external sense, be it the very real challenge of remembering more than 2 or 3 (on average) phone numbers or birthdays, but where this does the most damage is when we actually dig into that internalized reality, as this is where we make the narratives that define how it is that we function and live in unconscious ways from moment to moment. In the West where memory has arguably been most eroded, we see this most readily in the decline of the art of storytelling. We have grown skeptical of narrative exercises, preferring instead static information and rational “facts”. The problem with this is that our brains are not designed to simply retain facts. Memory itself depends on our brains necessary and adapted ability to filter through information and to forget that which we don’t need and remember that which is most important. It is on this basis then that weave this into a narrative that our unconscious selves can accept and our conscious selves can interact with.
To Remember and To Forget: The Right Ordering of Our World
In this sense, memory depends on the artful process of forgetting. Our minds developed to take in information and order it so as to then recast this information through story and narrative. And we do this for the purpose of building towards the future. This is what allows our memories to give our lives shape and locate us in this world in meaningful ways as something recognizable. When that gets eroded we end up feeling lost and aimless and unrecognizable. Reduced to mere facts that our brains can’t actually do anything meaningful with. As a human species, stories and narrative are as important to our diseminating and applying of truth as facts, and probably even more so. That we have become cynical of narrative “truth” in modern Western society is both a symptom of the erosion of the memory making process and a cause of our own increasing indebtedness to irrational processess, defined as facts artciulated increasingly without actual context through which to be formed and thus understood.
Our minds have long since been trained to forget by nature of how we consume information, just not in the fashion that our brains were actually built to forget. Foer points out that Socrates predicted this long ago when looking at the potential danger of putting what we know internally into print (external memory). Print, followed by indexes (the external ordering of information), and much much later the age of the internet, has played out Socrates’ very real concerns in a prophetic fashion. The world that is being created now is one based almost entirely on external memory systems whereas almost the whole of human history, on which the development of our brains hinges, was built through internal memory processes. As Foer suggests, progress is simply outpacing humanity at an unprecedented rate, and one of the greatest challenges of human society at large is our inability to address the changes this is bringing in terms of this internal/external process, something we can no longer fully engage and recognize because of this progressive lack of narrataive understanding and context. We have lost the ability to tell our stories, and thus our external reality has picked up where our internal process left off, ordering our memories and thus telling our stories for us. We are no longer what our unconscious memories make us to be, but rather what those external memories tell us we we must be.
Intelligence, Dualism and the Decline of Narrative Memory Making
There is another important question to add to this discussion, and that is, what exactly is intelligence? Is it as we have been trained to define it in our modern understanding- data, facts, and information? There is a degree to which intelligence relates directly to knowledge based systems, but as this book points out, knowledge itself is entirely different than actual knowing. As described earlier, intelligence used to be based on our ability to take information, analyze it, and then forget what we don’t need and remember what is most important. It is from here that our brains apply this to a functional narrative that helps us to make sense of that which we can then come to truly know. Over time what has happened in the modern world is that we have been trained to disassociate facts from narrative. Narrative, or stories are untruths that the facts, the science, the knowledge, can set straight. This might be as simple as observing the gradual seperating of academics from the arts, or the subsequent subsuming of the arts into mere existential statements about the rational facts. It is also as complex as the exchanging of one worldview for another, which now sees the right ordering of the universe as the assembling of information rather than revealing and recovery of necessary and narrative shaping truth. This is the basis of enlightenment style rationalism. In any case, what has happened is we have essentially elevated this kind of rationalism as the new god of this new age, trading in the God-Human-Creation relationship that humanity once engaged through story for a new form of dualism. As theologian N.T. Wright often puts it, in this new world, this new age, God can either be out there detached from the world (epicurianism), or God can be non-existent altogether. In either case this is effectively doing the same thing, which is forming a dualistic picture of the world in which the facts exist apart from humanity and the natural order and we exist primarily as beings in service to this capital T “Truth”. We end up with naturalism as opposed to “natural theology”, but a naturalism that has no way of reconciling how it is that humans fit into this natural world in a meaningful way. A naturalism that has long since abandoned its ability to interact with the human story as a memory making process. Progress has become the new obsession, and rationalism is its god. This is the same thing that happened when persistant dualism affected and gradually corrupted the ways in which we are able to imagine the gods actually interacting with the natural world, essentially leading to this familiar divide of facts versus fiction, religion versus rationality, and narrative versus information. The real danger then is this gradual eroding of the very essence of what it means to be human and to exist in relationship to this natural world.
Historically speaking, as Foer rightly points out, back when print first emerged on the scene suddenly the songs, the poetry, the stories that were once synonymous with human intellect and true narrative driven knowledge were no longer seen as bastians and holders and expressions of truth. As the book says, they were free then to become art, but in that freedom they suddenly also became distinct from true knowledge. Dualism at work.
The Modern Problem: A Loss of Imagination
To speak of all of this in quite personal terms, when we pause to take a look at all that we consume today in what has become a society built on mass consumption, which includes in a very real way the mass of information we take in every second of every day, and it becomes startling how little of it we actually are able to remember. We consume so much and remember so little, all the while educating our youngest minds based on data driven memory based systems that, in the more concerning reality, do not have the time to actually settle into our unconscious and natural memory making systems. It is as if we are reconditioning our brains in a real tim, self made evolutionary process to exist perpetually in those first 5 years of our life. This is what defines progress today. There is so much information coming at us all the time, and it does so with a sense of urgency that says progress or cease to exist as a human species, that our world is being redeveloped around external memory making systems where there is no ability to actually reflect on and analyze this information in the way our brains need to do to make sense of it in a meaningful way. Everything is new, and thus in this world everything must be new all the time to qualify as progress. Rewatching films or rereading books or sharing familiar stories, for example, becomes a cumbersome exercise, Traditions become a hindrance. We have a tendency to fill our days unecessarily with work and we structure our lives according to expectations of building entirely towards this obsession with the future. Intelligence gets whittled down to the central concerns of our modern age (environmental concerns, technological advancement, space exploration), while, as the film Ad Astra so aptly captured in its powerful inditment of modern human progress, we stand a very real danger of arriving at the future with no ability to actually make sense of any of it, let alone to even be able to ask the right questions to begin with. To ask the necessary questions is a part of what it means to be human. To fit these questions into a necessary human narrative is a part of what it means to engage the memory making process. What we have become less and less able to do is that which our brains developed to do, which is to apply these facts to a narrative structure. To tell these stories of our lives and our history, of our persons, our communities, of our humanity in a way that can then translate to capital letter Truth regarding who we are and how it is that we live in this world in a meaningful way.
As Foer explains, the Latin word for memory comes from “inventory” and “invention”, two ideas combined to make a whole. Memory in this sense is a “tool of recording and a tool for invention and composition”. It is the process of “making new connections between old ideas”, and as Foer so aptly puts it, “memory makes” or imagines “new things.” We have been trained in this modern world to think of memory as stuffing facts inside our heads. But memory as both a concept and as a very necessary human exercise is not built for this. Memory is by nature an imaginative process that has its roots in narrative making societies and cultures. “Learning, Memory and Creativity”, the bastians of what truth fundamentally is and becomes, are shaped around the same fundamental idea, which is that truth emerges from this interrelated function of past-present-future realities. As the book points out, “the art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images and link disparate ideas” with memories of the past for the sake of the future. This is how story emerges. Creativity, then, as Foer suggests, is the ability to “form connections between disparate ideas or images”, the ability to “create something new and hurl it into the future so that it becomes”… a story. Creativity is “future memory” in the strictest and most fundamental sense of the word. Unfortunately we live in a world today where it is all future and no memory. We dismantle the external markers of our past in the same way we dismantle the internal markers of our past, forging our way into an unidentifiable future ill prepared to give it much in the way of meaning.
The Modern Solution: Building Memory spaces. Memory Blocks and Memory Castles.
So what is the solution? I think the solution remains the same as it always has- recognize the power of artificial, explicit and episodic memories to afford us agency for change. In other words, spend time building conscious memories. This is the way we begin to take back control of our memory making process from those external buildings to constructing internal ones. This is described in technical terms as building memory castles, metaphorical rooms and spaces through which to tell our stories and make meaningful memories. What’s important to note here is that while simply spending time doing meaningful things is important, what gives memory its shape is foward movement, definitive decisions, choices, actions, that shake up the routine and give us something to distinguish our story as a story that is being told, that is developing, that is building.
Secondly, reengage with story and the storytelling process by retelling the stories from our past and thefore giving them new and fresh context as time moves forward. Accept that just as the truth that guides our lives is mostly unconscious, telling stories is the best way to truly know this truth as something other than facts. We need to do away with our modern skepticism and embrace this ancient and human artform and creative exercise as the means by which we can make sense of all of this information in the modern age. We need to trust that our memories will preserve what it is that we need to know to prosper and learn how to step out through faith in our subconcisous and unconscious knowledge of this world and who we are, and yes, I would argue, God. This doesn’t make us less intellectual, it actually makes us more knowledgeable. What’s important here is that for as much as memory depends on forward movement, our ability to remember also depends on giving us the mental capacity to afford the present its meaning. Routine and Tradition is as important as change and progress in this regard, as that becomes the means by which we can then be able to connect the past with the future. One potential of connecting this in concrete ways to curating our explicit and conscious memories is through attaching these stories to concrete things, be it a meal, a park, a building. There is a deep and intimate connection, for example, to memory making and architecture. Seeing a film together in a public space like a local theater builds a visible and tangible marker into our memories in ways that seeing it home cannot.
Third, and in conjunction with the second point, we need to be willing to temper the amount of information we take in by allowing ourselves the space to forget so that we can then begin to remember that which is most imporant. This might look like creating space to connect once again with nature in a way that brings our human experience into relationship with it. This might look like prayer and meditation. This might look like creating Traditions, forcing ourselves to rewatch important films or read important books, sharing familiar stories over the supper table. It might look at resting on a piece of information and submitting it to dialogue and conversation with others as much as we can. It might look like spending time reading or listening to longer forms of discourse or camping out on singular ideas despite that feeling that we simply don’t have the time for this or that we must keep up with this world’s astronomical pace of disemmination. This might look like taking the time to journal or blog or write out thoughts about certain ideas. And like above, attaching these spaces to something visually tangible like a building or a park or a coffee shop or a river side ect. can be a very real thing we can reintigrate into our lives in this fashion as well. It probably looks like all of the above. The more we do this the more we give our brains the chance they need to begin to build these internal systems of memory that can then translate these experiences and this information as necessary or unnecessary for telling the story we are building through our memories.
Space is tied to time, with memory recognizing this as our means of occupying a “when” and a “where” and then knowing and understanding the “why”. For me personally, when I think back over 2020 what I recall is a blurry and indistinguishable mix of activity that feels like it never actually existed at all. And I remember feeling in the past few weeks that this is a frightening notion when it comes to thinking about my life moving forward. My story is marked by pre-pandemic life, with my last meaningful and identifiable memory essentially erasing a year and a half of my life from my mind (and thus my story). This presents a very real challenge for the memory making process in a world where the memory making process is already being eroded. And yet perhaps there continues to be an opporunity for the empty space this pandemic has created to awaken us to this larger reality of our memories potential for knowing and for Truth and identity. However it is that we eventually emerge from this pandemic, if we can allow the experience to empower us back towards the memory making process this can go a long ways in helping to push back on the forces of this modern shift towards external building memory blocks and reclaim control of the human narrative in an internalized sense. Let the past inform our present so that we can reiminagine a future by way of a better and arguably more ancient story.