One of the things that fascinates me the most about the brain is the way it makes up coherent, mostly convincing stories with great confidence, even in the face of incomplete or puzzling information. It’s a dangerous trait, true, but where would we be without it? In particular, our selves seem more seamless than they are; they seem to stretch from the past to the present with some understandable gaps in memory but an overall sense that we were in charge the whole time and have reasonable insight into what went on. Sometimes, though, my past self is a foreign country.
On the Thinking Meat Project Facebook page, I recently posted this quote from The Country of Language by Scott Russell Sanders: “And I knew that my impulse to write is bound up with my desire to salvage worthy moments from the river of time. Maybe all art is a hedge against loss.” Ever since I posted this quote, I’ve been thinking about writing and memory.
It’s always been a challenge to me to know what to put in and what to leave out when I write. When I was in probably fourth or fifth grade, I was given an assignment to write about my spring vacation from school, which I think consisted of a long weekend around Easter. We were supposed to hand this in the morning after the vacation ended. I’m sure the teacher wanted just a page or two summing up the key events—an Easter egg hunt, a family dinner—but I started writing on the first evening of the break, all about coming home from school that day and what Mom said to me and what we had for dinner and what my brothers and sister and I did when we played in the yard that evening. I did the same thing the next day, in what must have been excruciatingly tedious detail.
The experience now reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s fictional map with a scale of one mile to the mile. It was the first time I thought about the writer’s problem of when to summarize and when to zoom into the details. (I seem to remember that about ten pages into the thing, it started to drive my mother nuts, and I was fairly frustrated too.) So “worthy moments” is a key part of the Sanders quote. You can’t possibly capture all the moments, and you wouldn’t really want to. It’s taken me longer to realize (or admit) that you can’t even capture all the worthy moments.
The other thing that occurs to me is that I also try to save worthy moments in the form of physical objects. I have a folder full of expired museum passes and train ticket stubs and similar ephemera from a trip to Paris this summer, not to mention some Euro coins in a small bowl. Handling these things again reminds me that those magical two weeks were real, and helps me focus my energies on getting back there someday. This is all well and good; that trip was just under six months ago. However, I have taken enough trips and lived through enough noteworthy events that I don’t have room for every bit of memorabilia from every one of them. My house is small, and life is short. Storing and looking at things from past experiences crowds out the space and time needed for new ones.
This leads back to writing, because sometimes writing about a particular place or time or event can be enough to preserve it in my mind, and I can jettison the physical reminders. This past spring I finally threw away an old set of bookshelves, the first I ever bought. They were made of particleboard and showing their years, but I clung to them because for someone who has as many books as I do, bookshelves are more than just another piece of furniture. I bought this set when I was 15, using money I had won in a creative writing contest. I painted them myself. They weren’t just bookshelves; they expressed the optimism and pride of my 15-year-old self. But they were in fact a slowly crumbling object that was falling apart unevenly and no longer stood up straight. It helped to write down my memories of them and let the bookshelves themselves go. A small file on the hard drive is much easier to find room for than the shelves themselves, but it still allows me to bolster my identity by hanging onto the feelings of that younger self.
In the much longer run, however, even the small file will have to go. One of the ideas about which I feel most passionately is the value of the written word to the human species. Forty-six years after I got my first library card, it is still sometimes a wonder to me that we can enter the minds of people long gone, let them transmit their thoughts to us, perhaps discuss those thoughts with others, and maybe even send a few down the pipeline ourselves to future minds. It is one of the most magical things that apes do. However, the amount of human wisdom and experience that has been preserved, as vast as it is, is only a fraction of the knowledge and thought and sheer human personality and wit that have been produced through the ages. And, if I am honest with myself, I realize that the amount of it that I will be able to comprehend, even if I live into my 80s or 90s, is the merest crumb. What I leave behind will probably be no more than the wake of the boats I saw passing on the Seine this summer, an evanescent ripple that blends quickly into the countless other agitations that move across the water.
This thought used to distress me, but I’ve cleaned out enough closets and hauled enough stuff to the curb or to Goodwill that I am content to realize that old things have to go, and someday I will be an old thing whose time has come. Even this realization, however, I would mark in words. The following poem is by Carl Sandburg; it’s from a collection called Smoke and Steel. Because the entire book is available for free from Google Books, I don’t think I’m taking anything away from Sandburg’s estate by posting this poem here.
Stars, Songs, Faces
Gather the stars if you wish it so.
Gather the songs and keep them.
Gather the faces of women.
Gather for keeping years and years.
And then . . .
Loosen your hands, let go and say goodby.
Let the stars and songs go.
Let the faces and years go.
Loosen your hands and say goodbye.
If you’ve read anything about the study of memory, you are probably familiar with the story of Henry Molaison, a man who lost the capacity to form new memories after brain surgery to control seizures in 1953. Known for years only by his initials, Molaison offered some fascinating insights to scientists while he was alive. Last year he died at the age of 82, leaving his brain to science. Researchers have sliced this famous brain into extremely thin sections and are going to map it digitally in great detail for further study. You can read more about it in this article from the New York Times. The Brain Observatory web site at the University of California at San Diego has more information.
The next time a particularly memory-laden song from your teen years comes across your iPod playlist and you suddenly start remembering people and places from long ago, thank your medial pre-frontal cortex. A recent fMRI study at UC Davis indicates that this area links our autobiographical memories and our emotional response to the music associated with them. Because this area is one of the last to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease, the findings could explain why people with Alzheimer’s still recognize and respond to music even after other memories are gone. This press release from EurekAlert gives an overview; the complete article is also available online, at least at the moment. (The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories, Petr Janata. Cerebral Cortex, Advance Access published online Feb. 24, 2009)
A friend recently sent me a link to a Pandora station he had created and thought I might like. That got me started exploring Pandora (an Internet music service based on the results of the Music Genome Project), in particular creating stations based on music I remember from my teen years (the 1970s) and twenties (the 1980s). Music is one of the strongest triggers I know for memories of a particular time and place; I enjoy not only recalling my own memories associated with a particular song, but hearing the stories that people close to me share about songs they remember. For example, when I hear Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good,” I flash back to when I was 17 and I bought my first car (a 1974 Gremlin; this was in 1978) and regularly drove home from my job at a bank through hot summer evenings in Phoenix with the windows down (the car was not air conditioned) and various pop songs playing on the radio (55 Phoenix, KOY).
However, I recalled all those details (and more), as well as some of the emotions of that time period, without listening to the song. A recent study examined whether there’s a difference in the strength of recall if people hear the song, see the title or lyrics, or see the album cover. The hypothesis was that hearing the song would lead to stronger recall, and that’s certainly what I would have expected. In fact, in a study of 124 undergrads who were prompted to recall songs from five different periods of their pasts, it didn’t matter that much how they were reminded of the song. The memories came back about as strongly for any of the experimental conditions, as long as the subjects were familiar with it and had autobiographical memories associated with it. This story from Science Daily gives an overview. The paper itself goes into a good bit more detail about autobiographical memory and the finer points of the study: Using music to cue autobiographical memories of different lifetime periods, Elizabeth T. Cady, Richard Jackson Harris, and J. Bret Knappenberger. Psychology of Music, Vol. 36, No. 2, 157-177 (April 2008)
I have always been prone to nostalgia, even when you would have thought I was too young for it. It’s easy to regard this tendency as a character weakness; nostalgia gets bad press sometimes, being perceived as a sentimental waste of time, and it’s long been described as a psychological malady. However, a new paper surveys some recent research on the subject and recasts nostalgia as a psychological strength, a trick whereby we give our meat something to think about that makes us feel happier, more connected to others, and better about ourselves. This press release gives a brief overview, and the paper itself is, of course, much more interesting, if you can get your hands on it (Nostalgia: Past, Present, and Future, by Constantine Sedikides, Tim Wildschut, Jamie Arndt, and Clay Routledge. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(5): 304-307)
One of the intriguing things I found in the paper is a comparison of people’s emotional reactions to recalling different kinds of experiences: positive, ordinary, nostalgic. Nostalgic experiences were unique in calling up both negative and positive emotions, but their net effect was likely to be a happy one. One study indicated that in nostalgic memories, even uncomfortable or unhappy events were often viewed side by side with happier ones, and this combination of the bitter and the sweet was perceived in terms of a redemption narrative that allowed loss or upset to be transmuted into something better.
It’s this ability to see the ebb and flow of experience as part of a bigger picture that may contribute to one of the benefits of nostalgia: a kinder view of one’s own self. The article itself quotes from another source to describe something that rang quite true for me:
Nostalgia has been theorized to bestow “an endearing luster” on the self and to cast “marginal, fugitive, and eccentric facets of earlier selves in a positive light”.
(The quotes are from Davis, F. (1979). Yearning for yesterday: A sociology of nostalgia. New York: Free Press, pp. 41-46.)
To return again to the music-and-emotion theme, this reminded me of how I feel sometimes when listening to music that I’ve known for a long time, particularly the music of the Moody Blues, which means a great deal to me and has accompanied me through many of the events of my life since my early 20s. Somehow looking back at the memories evoked by the music (memories of times both good and bad, and certainly encompassing some eccentric facets of my earlier selves) blends the many aspects of my past into a story that, for all its dark spots, looks lovable to me (rather than filling me with angst over the mistakes I’ve made and the things I’ve lost).
The paper also mentions a couple of other benefits of nostalgia: the alleviation of loneliness (by letting us relive memories of beloved people and recall our bonds with them) and the existential dread of knowing that we must die someday (by supplying a shared sense of meaning). All in all, a very nice rehabilitation of a phenomenon once seen as an illness!
The paper closes with some thoughts on areas that might merit further exploration, in particular the possibly changing role of nostalgia over the lifespan, and the ways nostalgia might provide a thread linking past and present selves and thus contribute to our sense of identity.
“Every day is better than the one before it,” sang Al Stewart in a bouncy, optimistic song about Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic. Thinking that things will keep getting better can be a motivator, but life is more of an up-and-down affair than a series of constant improvements. According to a recent study, older people realize that and have fewer illusions about possible future happiness (and also more accurate recall of past mindsets).
Researchers surveyed nearly 4,000 adults in the US ranging in age from 24 to 74 in 1995-1996, and then again nine years later. They asked about current levels of satisfaction with life and projections for the future. The overall trend was that younger people (under 65) appeared to see life as a sort of a progression, with the present better than the past and the future projected to be even better yet. On the other hand, those over 65 saw the past and the present as being about equally satisfactory, and they did not anticipate as much satisfaction in the future. The younger people were not as accurate in projecting their future state of mind (they thought they’d be more satisfied than they were).
What’s particularly interesting is that across all the age groups, having realistic views of the past and future was linked to “the most adaptive functioning across a broad array of variables”. One of the things I enjoy about getting older is the perspective that you get from having a wider range of experiences to draw on as you face new situations (this is especially valuable for difficult new situations). I’m 47 now, so maybe I can look forward to greater self-awareness and a more realistic grasp of life’s possibilities and limitations by the time I hit 65. (Sounds like I just need to keep my expectations reasonable.) This press release from EurekAlert provides more details, and the paper itself, which will appear in the September 2008 issue of Psychological Science, is available online in PDF format: Realism and Illusion in Americans’ Temporal Views of Their Life Satisfaction: Age Differences in Reconstructing the Past and Anticipating the Future. Margie E. Lachman, Christina Röcke, Christopher Rosnick, and Carol D. Ryff.
The New York Times has an interesting essay comparing human memory and computer memory. We humans (and other living creatures) use cue-based memory recall, and as you know, the cues sometimes don’t trigger the memory you need, or trigger an incorrect memory. (It was also interesting to learn how irrelevant some of the cues are; for example, people are often able to recall a word better if they are in the same posture—slouched, standing up straight, etc.—in which they learned it.) Computers, on the other hand, use location-based recall, which is much more reliable. But first you have to know where everything is, which is easy for a computer and impossible for us to do with our brains.
The author of this essay speculates that someday we may have neural implants that can work with our memories the way Google does with the web, helping us to search the data stores between our ears. I’m not sure how it would work, but it sounds useful, if a little spooky. It’s worth noting that on my laptop, nearly three years old, a few of the letters on the keyboard look a little worn. The “N” is completely worn away, leaving a blank key, and I think this is because the single most common task I do on my computer is to open a new window in my browser, more often than not to search Google. So I can see the value of having the memories in my brain indexed and easily accessible. I suppose the ability to Google our brains is far off, but it makes for interesting imagining.