Memory as Measure


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Ben Barker

2nd May 2012

I can’t really remember the film Moneyball. I saw it recently, and I’m sure it was fine. I think Brad Pitt looked a bit waxy, a man did something with numbers. I suppose it saved me reading the wikipedia page for either or both of them. If a friend hadn’t asked my opinion, I would have forgotten it forever. That doesn’t make it a bad film, but in my estimation doesn’t make it a good one either, it left no legacy.

Is that system fair, and does it translate more broadly to experience?

A measure for experience might be memorability. If you can’t remember a month, a year or a decade, then it probably lacked profound, revelatory or stimulating experiences. This is something we touched on in our podcast a few months back. Though it could also be applied to any single experience as much as a period of time. Think back to any moment, how sharply do you remember its smells, encounters or the way you felt. What does your recall of it tell you about its significance?

There is the danger of making memory creation the activity rather than one of the outcomes, here’s Simon Amstell on that:

“I was in Paris recently with a new group of people… So she suggests that, at about three in the morning, that we all run up the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. And I guess telling you about that now sounds a little bit exciting and fun, but at the time, I just thought, “but w-why would we do that? And then what’s the point? And then when we get there, then what will we do with our lives?” And I’m sort of analyzing what the point of it is, and we live that way [points the other way] and it seems a long way to go. And everyone else is just not analyzing, they’re just running and I’m running as well because of the peer pressure because I’m fun! And we’re all running and running and everyone else, I think, is just at one with the moment, at one with joy, at one with the universe, and I’m there, as I’m running, thinking, “well, this will probably make a good memory!” Which is living in the future discussing the past with someone who, if they asked you, “oh, what did it feel like?” “I don’t know! I was thinking about what to say to you!”

If he had of been “at one with the universe” like his peers, he could still have formed a lasting memory, however it wasn’t a transformative or meaningful experience for him, so he had to consciously encode it.

So how is memory formed? This is all reduced from Richard C. Mohs, PhD description at:

It begins with encoding of perception. Perception is a stimulation of any or all of the senses. The Hippocampus then integrates all those inputs into a single experience and decides if they are worth remembering. This is based on your state of mind, repetition and need. We are surprisingly in control of what we remember. He says “how you pay attention to information may be the most important factor in how much of it you actually remember.”
As one brain cell sends signals to another, the synapse between the two gets stronger. The more signals sent between them, the stronger the connection grows. Thus, with each new experience, your brain slightly rewires its physical structure. What is interesting is that we can either choose to try and remember something, or an experience can be sufficiently transformative that it demands to be remembered. First kiss, first airplane flight. First is a word that comes up again and again.

In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust made the distinction between habitual memory and what he called ‘memoire invoulontaire’. He took the view that ‘habit was anaesthetic to memory’ and that it ‘weakens all impressions.’ He even went as far as saying that it was ‘a second nature that prevented us from knowing our real selves’. The important distinction here is made between strong memorable moments, and the anaesthetic of memories encoded through habit. As A. E. Pilkington explains, Proust sees “voluntary and involuntary memory as recollection of identifiable events”, however Bergson makes the point in Matter et Memoire that ‘the two memories [may] run side by side and lend to each other a mutual support.’ So the challenge is not just forming memory, but memory of identifiable events and moments.

Can we use memorability as a measure of experience?

A reasonable criticism may be the fallibility of memory. We adapt our experiences to represent what we want, without subjectivity so memory is not a definte measure, however it is an indicator of richness of experience. We can ask ourselves what stands out, and in that sense the detail is less important, our remembrance, however skewed, is the measure of value.

After-Life is a beautiful film by Hirokazu Koreeda where newly dead people find themselves in a waystation en route to heaven. They are asked to reflect on what their favourite memory is. All the characters are drawn from interviews with real people, put into the hypothetical situation. It’s interesting for the memories they choose, but also for forcing people to weigh their lives. If you were one of the newly deceased, what would you choose?

What other measures of experience might exist? Personality, appearance, values. All of these are surely products of memory, be it habit (the experientially bad kind), voluntary (actively remembered) or involuntary (excited by chance). The quality of memory that an experience generates is its only legacy. Taking the metaphorical deathbed* as being the bottom-line of life, will you congratulate yourself the endless hours of forgettable contentment or be glad of the memorable experiences and transitions?

*The moment when your memories are both the most valuable and the most worthless. This is a big question to address, for now ponder on this quote from Blade Runner:

Tears In Rain (Blade Runner – 1982):
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. [pause] Time to die.”