The past ain’t what it used to be

To Birmingham. On the train I read an article in the London Review of Books about memory and the ways in which we configure the past: our own past, in particular. This is a matter close to my heart, and Jenny Diski’s article is an excellent summary of current research in both neuroscience and our cultural understanding of how memory operates. She cites, for example, her own inability to recall the name of  Hollywood star . . .

whatshisname – oh you know the bloke who played uh . . . Rhett Butler . . . was married to whatshername . . . it feels to me that I am not who I used to be, not quite myself, or that I am continuing to leave ever further behind the someone I was. It isn’t the information that Carole Lombard was married to Clarke Gable that has gone, it’s the me who knew it who is disappearing. Those who are older than they are young make exaggeratedly impatient, self-deprecating jokes when they forget a name, a face, or why it was they walked into a room.

Isn’t this familiar to all of us who are ‘older than we are young’? I know it is true where I am concerned. But there is more:

Recent research at Notre Dame suggests that it may be passing through doorways which unframes the thought you had the second before – but I’ve just forgotten the end of this sentence and I haven’t moved, let alone left the room.

Perhaps what the researchers failed to specify was that the ‘passing through doorways’ may not be (only) a literal passage. Perhaps an equivalent ‘passing’ from one conceptual domain to the next simulates, in some bizarre way, the ‘unframing ‘ or reframing of a passage from room to room, and that this inhibits the thought’s expression in language . . . In any case, Diski moves on to a familiar scenario, one with which all of us will be familiar, to some degree:

That ubiquity of joking, nervous laughter as we confess to a memory lapse suggests we know very well that the increasing frequency of the loss of a recollection means much more than an irritating moment of blankness. It’s the ‘normal’ beginning of the loss of ourselves, and it is terrifying. Beneath the laughter, blind panic.

Here I cannot fail to remember my mother, who seemed to anticipate the onset of her own dementia – although I have no means of ascertaining whether she was aware of this herself – by a continuous bantering, beginning, I guess, in her fifties, that she was ‘going batty’. It was almost a family joke, or would have been, had there not been the uncomfortable knowledge that it was also, at the very least, a possibility. Sitting with her in her last years, when she had lost speech, and the ability to do most things for herself, I remembered the almost indulgent glee with which she would joke about ‘going batty’ (and she was not an essentially funny person) and the memory was not a good one. The joking was barbed: the future, then, seemed already curtailed by a prophecy.

Diski discusses two conflicting theories of memory, tracing one of them to the neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, whose experiments with patients in the 1950s led him to believe that past events were ‘infallibly impressed in the library of our brains’ – and even if we are not conscious of the memory, for instance a song we once heard, it can be tapped by exploring areas of the temporal cortex and by ‘triggering’ the memory with electrodes. This theory suggests that memories are objectified entities that lie intact somewhere in the structure of the brain. The contrary opinion, put forward by Frederic Bartlett at Cambridge, was that memory was a ‘schema, seeded by experience but fleshed out by a plethora of social, psychological and cultural circumstances.’ In other words, ‘we remake our memories each time we think them’, depending on what is required of us.

These ‘scientific’ positions, of course, reflect schools of thought that existed long before the named scientists did their work: put crudely – an objective, ‘real’ memory, as against a culturally or psychologically constructed memory that fits the occasion. But one thing remains certain: without obvious access to a bank of undiluted ‘factual memory’, all our ‘so-called memories are highly plastic and we are inclined to remember according to our own and others’ expectations.’

Something utterly fantastic – and new to me – emerges from this article (which is actually a review of Alison Winter’s book Memory: Fragments of a Modern History). This is that the emotions associated with an event are stored separately (in the amygdala) from the memory of the event itself (which is stored in the hippocampus). Would this explain why we are suddenly overcome (as, in the famous instance of Proust and his madeleine) by an emotion, a taste, a smell, without the accompanying information about the event with which the reactive emotion is associated?

All of this stuff throws up massive issues for the writer (especially the writer of memoir) and casts an interesting light on the notion of writers ‘making stuff up’ when they are purportedly writing about true events. How can we know what we are remembering when the I that is doing the remembering is no longer the me who lived through the event in the first place? None of this justifies random and misguided accusations of falsification – Diski reminds us of the terrible unleashing of ‘repressed memories’ when hundreds of parents found themselves accused of sexual and satanic abuse of their children – so we need to be careful, especially of the shadow side of things, or of our ‘repressive unconscious’, and of things that go bump in the night.

2 Comments on “The past ain’t what it used to be

  1. The liminal analogy rings very true: this is why the topography of the labyrinth is so appealing. Also the savagery at the basis of laughter: we keep ranking it at another level from anger and grief when it clearly is their peer: most laughter is at others in order to define tribe/not tribe, but, taking that a step inwards, we laugh at ourselves for being or not being that self we invest most in? Whether memory is permanently encoded when our access is always temporaneous is definitely on for the neuroscientists – for the writer all things are – almost – equally real at the point of conception.


  2. Yesterday I went to a birthday party in a friend’s house I’ve been to many many times since the 80’s. I walked the neighbourhood for forty minutes unable to remember the house. Only the last four numbers of her phone came to my mind. I tried all the variations I could make up of the first three, but they were all wrong. Standing in corners under the lamplights I knew this was not my regular bad memory, this is the beginning of something far more terrifying. Your post helped, as everytime words and their beauty understand (as in stand under) and hold me in my fall.


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