debbie millman

Friday, February 10, 2006

Commentary: A Memory I Can't Remember

There is a book that I read when I was very young that I still think about. It was a thin, hard cover book about a little girl going to sleep. It featured lushly drawn illustrations of the girl’s bedroom and there was a night table next to her bed. It had a glass of water on it, a clock and a book. I also remember an illustration of an open window filled with a giant moon. I remember being so taken with this book that I set up my own night table to mimic the girl’s night table in the story, complete with the very same water glass. I wore my hair the way she did. I read and re-read this book night after night for months on end. I don’t think I could have been more than 6 or 7. What I DON’T remember is the name of the book or the author who wrote it. But the images of this book have been vividly lodged in my memory for nearly forty years now, still a part of my consciousness, though the part that might enable it to be fully brought back to life (namely the name) has been tucked out of reach. I call this a memory I can’t remember.

‘Memory’ is a moniker for a unique set of cognitive abilities that we use to reconstruct past experiences, usually for purposes in the present. I think that our ability to conjure up long-gone episodes of our lives is both comforting and baffling. Since we remember experiences that are not currently happening, memories seem to be rather different from perception. But as we remember events that really happened, memory is different from pure imagination. Memory seems to be a source of knowledge, or perhaps retained knowledge. And remembering is often combined with emotion. It is connected in enigmatic ways with dreaming. Some memories are shaped by language, others by imagery. According to Daniel Wegner in his marvelous book “The Illusion of Conscious Will” the essence of personal identity is memory. For example, if you recall or recognize an experience that occurred to you at prior time, there is a thread of personal identity linking now and then. The experience contains not only the events that you remember, but also you, the “rememberer.” Wegner contends that our identities can be understood as a chain of such memory links, and if there is a break in this chain of personal identity, then the current self might not be the same as the past self. So I naturally can’t help but think that my quest to recreate my childhood library and re-experience the same imagery first hand as opposed to vague faraway recollections is an attempt at filling in some blanks in understanding myself.

My childhood library is not my only quest for reconstruction, I have tried to re-experience movies and television shows I saw as a child and young adult, perfumes I loved, magazines I read, even toys I once cherished. Though I would like to think I am alone in this somewhat bizarre affliction, one need only to go to ebay and do a search for 1970’s memorabilia to know that thousands, and even millions of people are trying to do this too. Ebay even made a commercial about this quest.
What are we looking for? Why do we seek physical proof of experiences and images that are so deeply and viscerally embedded in our brains? What are we really searching for?

I read the other day in the book “Strangers to Ourselves, Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious” by Timothy WIlson that our five senses take in more than 11 million pieces of information in any given moment. 11 million! Scientists have determined this number by counting the receptor cells each sense organ has and the nerves that go from these cells to the brain. Our eyes alone receive and send over 10 million signals to our brains each second. Scientists have also tried to determine how many of these signals can be processed consciously at any given point in time, by looking at such things as how quickly people can read and detect different flashes of light, and tell apart different types of smells. The most liberal estimate is that people can consciously process is about 40 pieces of information per second. So…we can take in 11 million pieces of information per second, and can process only 40 of them consciously. What happens to the other 10,999,960? According Wilson it seems terribly wasteful to design a system with such incredible sensory acuity but very little capacity to use the incoming information.

Well my hope is that our desires to recreate reality—whether it be to paint, to write, to design, to collect, to remember—these are just some of the many ways we try to understand each other and our place in the world around us. What we can’t physically understand or remember, (even childhood book titles) become expressed in our actions or our artwork or our intentions. And all these expressions contain the other 10,999,960 pieces of imagery and information hidden in our minds.
I have come to the conclusion that I may never remember the name of my precious childhood tome. However, I now hold forth a different perspective, and one that I find oddly endearing: while I might not remember the name of the book, the book remembers me. The book is a marker that allows me to remember a person that once was. I think this is true for all of us on a quest to find something we have lost. Maybe the physical evidence isn’t that important. While we might have lost something tangible, it can always live on in our imagination. And if we continue to watch the world around us, and take in everything that we possibly can, our imagination can never go away, and never fail.


Blogger Rob said...

You are here.

2/17/2006 01:58:00 PM  

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