By Myles Ludwig
As a writer, I depend upon my memory a great deal, not so much for facts and figures so easily abundant by click, but certainly for flavor. For making something out of nothing, so to speak, which may be how the expression, “spinning a good yarn” came about.
I also coach embryonic memoirists at The Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach and the Mid-County Senior Center in Lake Worth and invariably, I am asked: “how can I remember these events from my childhood, so long ago?”
At those times, I am reminded of a story I was writing for a magazine in New York that followed a struggling young Broadway actor through his day. I had accompanied him to a singing lesson and, truthfully, I marveled at his ability to sound the right note – I was labeled a “listener” in my grammar school, to my everlasting shame – and I asked him to explain how he found the sound of an E or an A-flat. Surprised, the young actor responded: “How do I not?”
I recall being nonplussed at the time.
Another question that frequently comes up in the group of memoirists is: Should I write as a child or as a remembering adult? I suggest they think of time as elastic, in other words: write about your past with your present intelligence. If you cannot recall exactly how it was or what you were thinking or feeling at the time, use the wisdom you have now to indicate what you think might have been.
And though, instinctively, I know this is appropriate and true, I felt the need for a better, more informative answer. It does make me wonder how we can travel back in time royal class without ever leaving our seats, a journey that the Canadian experimental psychologist Endel Tulving described in a 2002 issue of the Annual Review of Psychology. Tulving first proposed the notion of episodic memory in 1972 and calls it a marvel of nature.
According to his article, “Unidirectionality of time is one of nature’s most fundamental laws. It has relentlessly governed all happenings in the universe — cosmic, geological, physical, biological, psychological — as long as the universe has existed. Galaxies and stars are born and they die, living creatures are young before they grow old, causes always precede effects, there is no return to yesterday, and so on and on. Time’s flow is irreversible.
“The singular exception is provided by the human ability to remember past happenings. When one thinks today about what one did yesterday, time’s arrow is bent into a loop. The rememberer has mentally traveled back into her past and thus violated the law of the irreversibility of the flow of time.”
This remembrance, this memory that speaks to us of our past is unique to every individual and, with little or no effort, can be cued up like a record (remember those?) on the turntable of consciousness by a signal as slight as a tune or an aroma.
For a broader explanation, I met with the sparky young Yingxue Wang. The Beijing-born scientist is the newly named head of the Neuronal Mechanism of Episodic Memory Research Group at the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience, that landlocked lighthouse of shining brilliance on the edge of Jupiter.
She studies the circuits of the brain that are the pathways of episodic memory, peering into the minds of mice brains. But no dour, lab-coated, stiff intellectual, she. Rather a jeans-and-sweater-clad witty, charming and nimble mind with a gamine’s appeal and a mischievous smile. We carried on a breezy conversation on a breezy afternoon in her small office in the soaring institute which was as intense and exhilarating as I’ve ever enjoyed.
Even now, writing this, I recall the room, the round table, the color of the walls — just as she predicted.
Wonderfully articulate, with an unabashed sense of wonder and genuine humor, Wang cheerfully clarified the remarkable process and system of memory — how memory is encoded by the hippocampus, a representation transferred across a network of the brain’s circuitry to the amygdalae, those little almond-shaped structures in the brain, in a kind of memory bank, floating in a pond of rewarding dopamine, to be re-coded and ready to be retrieved on cue. And much of this mental work occurs in our sleep.
But unlike deposits and withdrawals made in a traditional bank with traditional currency, this currency, this currency of experience, is not spent once withdrawn. In fact, it remains securely sealed in the vault, or, at least, a representation of it remains, which can be withdrawn without disappearing.
“Memory made us human; that’s why it’s so interesting to study,” said Wang, smiling as if she knew a secret, like where the key to the vault might be found.
She’s looking with the aid of a two-photon imaging microscope that allows her to observe responses at the single-neuron level.
We have at least two kinds of memory systems: semantic (those pesky facts), and episodic, which is tied to our experiences and emotions (those pesky things). Stoop-shouldered, we labor under these burdens, though they may also be pleasant — if accompanied by a spurt enough of rewarding dopamine and maybe a soupçon of serotonin — or frightening. Either way, they are crystallized by the emotion we experience at the time.
To quote Tulving again, episodic memory is “one of the major neurocognitive memory systems that are defined in terms of their special functions.” In fact, episodic memory – the kind we rely on for memoirs, narrative writing and just getting through the day – is often referred to as autobiographical.
Some 90 percent of what we experience is forgotten within seconds, explained Wang. And maybe that’s a good thing, since we so often fall into unforced faux pas. Memory is fragile and may decay, but it does not leak out of your ear, so earplugs won’t help you recall where your house keys are.
As for the component of “self,” a concept Wittgenstein might deride as metaphysical hocus-pocus, consider the plight of the humble fruit fly, intently flitting from one morsel to another, only to be cruelly banished from the table by a wave of the hand or, more precisely, a shadow upon its intended repast. Is it frightened? Does it fear the shadow? Literally? Can it remember the darkness imposed upon its target of delight? Does it, in fact, have a self? A memory?
Sadly, it cannot whisper its secret fears and thoughts in our ears, at least in form intelligible to those of annoyed at the table.
And the chicken, a being so flighty it’s liable to peck itself into oblivion when faced with its own reflection in a mirror. It sees not itself, but a rival. Does it have a sense of self, esteem high or low? Perhaps ignorance truly is a kind of bliss. One thing we know: as the late Stanley Seigel used to say, a chicken is the only animal who can lose weight and not show it in its face.
On the other hand, a magpie, as it turns out, is pretty smart in comparison and it can recognize itself in a mirror. These are not frivolous questions, going as to they do to the very heart of how we think of ourselves. We humans do most certainly do have a sense of self, though it is hardly always cogito ergo sum in Descartes’ dictum. To be so rational as that is to flatter ourselves.
Our conversation ranged over the neurological, psychological and philosophical, always profound but with a certain lightness and always made clear by Wang with amiability. A memory is not a single picture, she said, but a representation of the original context, kind of a phantasm that we see or feel not so much as a static image, but more as a stream, much “like a video.”
It’s as if we have an internal Netflix of the eternal past at our disposal that enables us to see the immediate coming attractions. This is now we learn from the past to act in the future. Memory is part of consciousness, of course, but we are hard pressed to pin down that state of being.
Even Freud’s topographical view (conscious, subconscious, unconscious — a distinctly geologic abstraction) is a construct, handy though it is.
“We don’t really know,” Wang confessed.
Because she has an engineering and software engineering background, Wang views it as a kind of memory system and works to reverse-engineer the parts. And, she believes, our understanding will soon gallop ahead, and we will be able to map the whole brain. “The next 10 years are the most exciting in the last 100.”
As our conversation was coming to an end, I raised the question of creativity, which, as best we know, is the ability to somehow make a combination of logical and illogical associations, the common and the uncommon, which hearkens back to what I learned from my design mentor, Tony Palladino: “Make the common, uncommon” was his imperative.
This is something a computer cannot do. Artificial intelligence may be fine for your phone or vacuum cleaner, but only a human being can go, as Wang put it, “from zero to one.”
And how these circuits developed and what the mind is (or even where it is, beyond the physical substrate of the brain itself), and how to understand the idea of consciousness?
“Very fuzzy,” she said, smiling mischievously.