Aug 31, 2007

On Episodic Memory and Empty Spaces

A friend from long ago contacted me today, having located me through this website. In the course of our emails my friend brought up a philosophical discussion that occurred some twenty-plus years ago.

The topic was Bobby Sands, the IRA activist who died in a 1981 hunger strike. My friend recounted the debate in which we once engaged, specifically referring to a political science professor I quoted as making the argument that "only extreme suffering can justify suicide."

Unfortunately, I can remember none of what must have been a lively debate. There is an empty space where this episodic memory ought to be stored.

Now, I might chalk this incident up as evidence of my own latent senilty were it not for the fact that a similar incident occurred with another friend, only I was the person in possession of the clear memory.

We were sitting around one day listening to music and engaging in spirited discussion over bands that contributed to the genre of swamp rock. I scoffed when my friend suggested The Hollies on the basis of the song "Long Cool Woman."

Several decades went by, and I heard the song on the radio a few years back. As I listened, I recalled the 1985 swamp rock debate, and sure enough I heard the song in a new light. While The Hollies themselves might not have been swamp rockers, "Long Cool Woman" was clearly a song that could be tagged as swamp rock.

My friend, however, was completely oblivious to such a debate.

Thus, I am musing about the exact determinants to what gets saved and what gets chucked in the human memory. Neither of these anecdotes was particularly life-changing, or even noteworthy, yet in each case one participant remembered the event clearly, while the memory of the event had long since been discarded by the other party.

Why should my brain retain a clear memory of some youthful conversation about swamp rock, while at the same time being seemingly incapable of recalling a similar debate about Bobby Sands? Better still, where did I put my car keys?



Anonymous said...

Memory is strange, to say the least. I frequently struggle to recall a bit of essential information, but remember perfectly the lyrics of songs I don't even like and the name of an obscure actress who appeared in an even more obscure movie from the '40s.

And you know how the mind takes a snapshot of certain faces, or scenes, or events -- capturing what will be a permanent memory, even though one did not will it to do so? Often these snapshots have little real importance in the overall picture of our lives, but still they're there, indelible, and they float back into our conscious thought without warning or reason. How and why does that happen?

Something else about memory that interests me is how warped it can be. I took my mother and her brother on a road trip to the town where they had grown up many decades ago, and each had a story to tell about the same events -- but their versions did not match. Even so, both were certain they had the correct version. I'm sure that had there been a stack of Bibles nearby, both would have sworn on them.

There have been times when my own personal history -- as I recall it -- has been destroyed upon finding factual evidence to refute it. But until confronted with the evidence, it still takes some brain massage to accept it because I've been so sure I remembered correctly.

I bought a book about memory and how it works, but can't remember where I put it. I can't even remember the title. Which shows I really need that book.

microdot said...

For me Memory is a Proustian phenomena, a rush of images and sensations triggered by an image, a sound, taste, the smell of gasoline or tar.
Given the right circumstances, I can recount every memorable meal I have ever had.
On the other hand, I realize that I have buried painful parts of my life and struggle to remember chains of events and details, but again, one special sound can hold the key. It's all there, you never really forget anything, it's just sloppy filing.

Mad Jack said...

For me Memory is a Proustian phenomena

Have you been sniffing glue again? I told you, lay off that stuff.