We think of memory as a beam of light that reveals something real and actual, but now research reveals it is more like a kaleidoscope, so that when we put it to our eye, we see bits and pieces in patterns that change, mostly with the same pieces in different arrangements but possibly with some bits dropped out and possibly new bits added (perhaps bits of mirror) have fallen in.
This is emotional for two reasons. One is that the actual mechanism of memory which is at the interface between what it out of the skin and what is in-skin, is “filed” for retrieval according to the sensorium pattern of the moment being noted and its attached emotion. We call this association, evocation, and sometimes flashback, re-living, maybe in an uncomfortable way, moments of intense fear, rage or possibly more positive feelings. Since this function developed before we had evolved the ability to talk, which is associated with the pre-frontal forebrain, it is developed and held in the older, more “limbic”, parts of the brain. Animals can do this. It amounts to a whole “feeling” system that is pre-verbal concepts but particularly accessible in art and always going on under our conscious verbal lives.
As time pushed on with its evolutions and mutations, memory became entangled with the idea of “truth,” which then -- like just about everything -- became a lever of authorities against lessers, which invented the categories of lies and fantasies. These might be conscious, to escape punishment -- which is a kind of deviousness that chimpanzees can learn -- or it can be a sincere mis-remembering, at variance with the evidence or recordings of various kinds. (I am drawing on Joseph LeDoux’s book, “Synaptic Self” and though I have it at hand with a lot of markers in it, I might not get all this quite right.)
By the time a human being is barely beginning to remember (which might or might not coincide with learning to talk) the culture is insisting on certain standards. These things are formed in the pre-frontal cortex with the actual mechanics handled in places like the hippocampus over the ears, the nearby cortex cells, the thalamus, and the amygdala -- all maturing at slightly different times so under slightly different environmental circumstances like safety or nutrition or exercise.
Then, of course, every culture and every mom has slightly different ideas about how to handle memory, particularly “truth.” Controlling moms need to know what you’ve been up to so they can intervene if necessary. “Where did you go? Who were you with?” and even the intimate matters of excretion, so that “mom wants to know” gets entwined with toilet training. “Did you do your duty?”
All this information is great for sibs who are tattletales or blackmailers. In my childhood there wasn’t much money so after we three became fascinated by toilet paper and enjoyed creating great bouquets of it, the rule was made that you couldn’t use a piece longer than your arm. Since I was female and my arms were short, my two brothers were happy to inform my mother that I was a paper-waster. Thus the truth gets to be an element of crime and testimony, but also a source of guilt, so I’ve remembered and resented this all these years, though now it’s pretty funny, a petty crime indeed. Still, it linked the earliest back-of-the-brain feelings of infancy with all today's little Miss Manners niceties of polite society.
LeDoux points out that though we’ve insisted for centuries that the brain is once-and-for-all the same, now we know that it is constantly growing and withdrawing. It is a process, a dance, and the result of time-arts, so that the brain we use to record what happens and to thereby guide the modification of our neuron protocols is not the same as the brain we use after decades to re-assemble and reflect upon our memories. Our problem is not quite the same as that of the music lover who begins with 78’s and must update through 33-1/2 to reel-to-reel to cassette to MP3 -- but that sequence is suggestive. Some songs can't be played anymore.
The “machinery” or “software” of the brain is far more complex than we thought, so that’s the reason there are so many margin notes, high-lights and stickies in this book. It’s a used book, so I also have the previous reader’s marks. I’m working on a little glossary because some of these tiny instant phenomena have never been detected before and have names invented by scientists with their Latinesque prefixes-and-suffixes way of thinking. But then they discover that they were wrong about whatever, so it gets a new name, and then they call it by initials or use lab nicknames. It’s like reading a Russian novel.
The actual structures, the channeling of the electrochemical impulses that come from the basic sensorium touching the out-skin world, the necessary molecules on hand (hopefully you’re not starving or missing a basic element), the limbic emotional attachments, the moral censoring from the pre-frontal cortex or perhaps the adding of fantasy shadows from a movie, the genetic instructions that argue among themselves (they can intensify or mute), the accumulation of endogenomes that (we are shocked to discover) can cross generations, the interfering chemicals from mind-altering substances like alcohol -- all this stuff makes a difference in what gets recorded. And then what can play back.
Tentatively, my understanding is that the pristine bit of impulse from hearing a sound goes through a series of steps beginning with a little dashboard close to the perceiving cells. Then it is filtered and annotated by half a dozen structures who pass it on as short-term memory, which again sorts and passes it on to another structure where it is prepared for long-term storage by dissecting it and classifying it, tagging it with the emotions of the moment. There is a “master dashboard” or “working consciousness” that can only handle seven or eight concepts at once, so it chooses some and drops out some. We don’t know a whole lot more than that.
Since memory is a major component of consciousness and since we think of consciousness as defining identity and since “felt-concepts” are not very conscious but those pinned down in words are certainly more conscious -- though choice of vocabulary (skinny or slim, naughty or nice) will not be value-free -- and those enshrined on paper whether as direct journal notes or as highly analyzed and distilled into written words acquire a kind of aura of valuable truth.
Until now. Words in code are now “set free” -- easily altered, transmitted out of context, contradicted by witnesses who would formerly have been suppressed. You can't rubber stamp "for eyes only" on computer code. You can't even really delete it. The truth and memory are now hydra-headed chimeras that politics and advertising (is there a difference?) try to collar -- to no avail. The point of God used to be that at least he/she (like mom) knew what was real and what was enduring. But now that God (Deus Absconditus is a formal theological term) and possibly Mom have left (it’s no longer just Dad who elopes with the secretary) we wonder whether the category is even useful. Do we need new words? Probably.
And what does this do to a system of justice that depends upon testimony? Will it reveal new realities about people unlike ourselves? Will it uncover a final solipsism in the world that paralyzes us between trust and fear? Yes. We embark on the trial of the Boston Bomber with deep misgivings. Can we handle the truth? Are there elephants hiding in the trees?
Writing on water -- FROM the water.