Friday, September 28, 2007

To rememeber or not to remember

I have always wished that I had been born with better memory. I get disappointed in myself when I can not remember the academic material I learned when I was 13. If I can not remember such material, does that mean I still learned something? However, after reading this weeks stories, I realized that being able to forget is also a blessing.

In The Mind Of A Mnemonist, Luria writes a very detailed account of a man, whom he calls S, with an incredible memory. S did not ever take notes. He could repeat, word for word, passages that are written in languages he does not understand. I could also reproduce a series (words, numbers, shapes) in reverse order. He could also readily identify which word followed another in the middle of a series. S's memory had no distinct limits. S memorized material by using the synesthetic reactions he experiences when confronted with a word, voice, or any other kind of situation. He always saw colors or light when he listened to someones voice. He heard sounds when ever he looked at a color. There were some mistakes in his memory, but these were not frequent. When he could not remember something, he saw "lines," "blurs," and "splashes." What I thought was particularly interesting was that he sometimes created a narrative with the sounds or words he had to memorize. He would place the image that a word conjured up for him in some sort of setting, such as a road. He would then place the other images along the road too. If he placed the image of an egg against a white wall, he would not be able to "see" it and so would not remember it. Therefore, his lapses in memory were due to defects in perception, not memory. I assumed that his synesthetic system of memorization was a highly advanced way of thinking. However, Luria clarifies this on page 57: "The excerpts I have quoted from the records on S may give the impression that what S accomplished was an extremely logical (if highly individualistic) reworking of the material he had to remember. But, in actual fact, nothing could be further from the truth." S used a technique of eidetic images to memorize things. His highly figurative memory actually prevents him from using logical means of recall. Not only was he not able to use logic when recalling memory, but he also had a hard time reading long passages because every word summoned a deluge of sensations.

In both Borges and Nabakov's narratives, an injury preceded the capacity to remember infinite amounts of information. I thought it was interesting that both Funes and Nabakov were thought to be highly intelligent, or just special. Borges is in awe of Funes from the very first time he sees him in '84. Nabakov states that "confessions of a synesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings and drafts by more solid walls than mine are"(p.35). He admits that his distinct trait is seen as pretentious. However, by the end of both stories it was clear that their great memories came with an equally big price.


Ashley Leone said...

This whole issue of forgetting reminds me of a conference project I did last year when I took 'Drugs and the Brain' with Leah Olson. I focused on the advances in technology within the military. By researching specific synapses and receptors in the brain, scientists have drawn themselves closer to figuring out a way to erase parts of your memory. Though this would do wonders for some tortured souls (like people who have been raped or perpetually abused in youth or in the case of the military, traumatized soldiers), I can't help but think that it could be somewhat detrimental.
Memory, of good or bad events, is necessary to build our character. S. is wildly interesting because of his extensive memory, and that made him who he was. It gave him a profession. But because of his immense difficulty forgetting, I wonder if an operation as such would have been helpful to him. It really is a troublesome question - to remember or not to remember? It can seem like a blessing to have such a power (like in the Borges story), but wouldn't your brain eventually feel so muddled? S. memorized infinite useless things, what part of his memory belonged to him? He was a tool essentially, and I don't see him functioning as a human as much as I can see him as this computer people paid to use.
Every week after reading, I become more aware and grateful for the mundane things I am capable of, like forgetting.

Molly said...

Hey Ashley,
I remember that class with Leah! It was great! I think what you are saying is really important. It is hard when like in Borges story memory seems to be a bit romaticized. I think our ability to forget is key. But also a question I have towards the act of memory in the case of S. is that he only remembered everything when it was presented to him in a similiar way?
His process of taking apart a sentence seems utterly exhausting, and the saddest thing I found was that it was only in the last chapter that we read anything about S.'s behavior and his actual 'self'. It is easier to fantasize about things that we don't understand. Like a readers opinion to S. and vice versa. When you talk about forgetting things in the military and personal tragedies that have happened I wonder if S. wouldn't forget these things to, by just not targetting the things in his mind that reminded him of them.

maggie said...

S.’s narrative illuminated the unseen importance of forgetting and stirred some interesting questions. To remember or not or remember? Should we hold on to our painful memories? Is the forgetful way of life better than that of a mnemonist? S. also provokes me to wonder how much is a healthy amount to forget? It seems that there must be an equilibrium found between mnemonia and amnesia for people to have a normal functioning memory.

This week LeDoux dives into arguing the contribution memory has on one personality and self. I have wondered before when this argument has come up in LeDoux, Sacks, and Munro how ideas of self are affected in those who suffer from amnesia. Now with S. we have the opposite question of how does having an immaculate memory affect one’s sense of self? Ironically it seems that both poles on the spectrum of memory have similar feelings of detachment and confusion. They live in similar alternate realities, comprised of segments of lucidness and episodes of creating their own world based on their altered memory functioning. Amnesias like Fiona create their personal realities based on trying to link the few memories they have. Mnemonists/synestics like S. on the other hand get integrate their visions of many detailed memories and reality. In any case, both of these disorders are portals into what seems like an odd dream world; a dream world that inhibits them from interacting with “normal” reality and their for enforces a sense of severance.

Sorry this did not have to do terribly with all the readings. I thought it was interesting though.