Thursday, September 07, 2006

Memory Babe

Memory Babe, as far as I remember, was what some people called Jack Kerouac, recording the fact that he remembered practically everything. Perhaps he didn't really have such a fantastic memory, but just used to write everything down regularly. He was, for example, an assiduous dream diarist.

Clare Dudman has a very interesting post here about the evolution - through the ages - of metaphors that try to explain how memory functions. It is interesting how the metaphors mirror mankinds' technological development: early metaphors involving wax tablets, more recent ones computers.

It would seem a computer is the closest we have yet come to reproducing the functioning of mind, but a computer does not actually think. I don't believe there is yet a computer that had an original idea and actually knew that it had. But I would be glad to be proven wrong...

Some autistic people with the marvellous memories that characterise Savant Syndrome, show us that the human brain is capable of great feats. And yet most of us are not capable of using our brains in this way, simply for remembering. In fact, for most of us, our brains are busy doing something more important which is sifting and processing the information to make sense of it.

On the way to work this morning, I had two ideas. Unfortunately I had no piece of paper with me and the second idea displaced the first one, leaving me with no recollection of what the first one was, even though I tried to 'mix' the ideas in my head in order to try and remember them better.

What is going on in this case? Is the correct metaphor for memory one which involves displacement, or one which involves a paternalistic homunculus denying me access to my own ideas?

Is an idea a memory? If we remember them they must be. Does the part of the brain which creates ideas fight with the part of the brain which manages memories?

When we think randomly of a memory, what controls which memory comes to the surface? Is there a constant process of selection and enforcement going on in which certain memories are being strengthened?

If this process of strengthening exists, does it in some way falsify our experience, as if to make a cartoon or a myth out of it? Much poetry that is written would seem to draw on poets' individual mythology.

From the web-site I linked to above about Jack Kerouac's Book of Dreams: "Jack Kerouac was writing the myth of his time."

Why should this type of myth-weaving be justifiable? Is that really the purpose of art? But if we are not myth-making, are we simply recording, recalling numbers from the great telephone directory of life?


clare said...

Very interesting post, Jonathan (as usual!). There were some metaphors used to describe the process of one idea displacing the other - one was overwriting - going with the wax tablet idea.

Since I have been on my week away I think (but am not entirely sure, I need to learn more) that the current thinking is that neurons store an idea by making networks. An idea is formed by making a network in one part of the brain, then stored in other areas according to whether it is a short or long term memory. Since these networks are constantly in a state of flux a new idea may override (or overwrite or displace) the old idea.

Memories are strengthened as the links between the neurons are increased and short cuts are made. I suppose these shortcuts could introduce myths as you say.

That is my understanding so far, but I am going to find out more. It is a fascinating topic. Thatnk you for your questions, Jonathan, it has made me think things through some more.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for your comment Clare. I wonder if the fact that the current metaphor for the working of the brain is 'networks' merely represents the fact that networked computers are the technological state of the art. Maybe one day this metaphor will seem as outdated as a wax tablet does to us today. What about a field full of grasshoppers chirruping as a metaphor for the working of the brain? Or a flock of starlings such as these. The sound shapes or visual shapes so formed could easily represent thoughts could they not?