Some days ago my Pranayama practice left me vibrating with thoughts about memory. I had an OK practice though my mind was wandering. At one point in the practice I found myself trying to recall if I held my breath as I was supposed to on the previous breath. Even though it happened just seconds ago I could not remember. I came out of the practice with a question glued to my consciousness – what if there’s no such thing as memory?
1: I Only Remember Stories … and ones that I Like
Naturally my stubbornly-logical mind kicked in and came up with examples (memories? duh!) of how (my) memory works. It actually came up with two very interesting examples.
Most of my professional career I specialized in systems-analysis – which is to software like architects are to buildings. It involves uncovering and juggling a lot of sometimes obvious sometimes hidden information from a lot of sources with diverse motivations and transforming it into an architectural description of software (which is then handed over to software engineers to actually build it). I was really good at holding loads of information in my mind, seeing into it and through it and then creating a mental image of a software system. I then had to create tedious written descriptions of what I was seeing – but those weren’t for me they were for other people who couldn’t fit into my head and see what I was seeing.
In my late teens and early twenties I was deep into tap-dancing (long story I will get around to telling) including performances and teaching. There too I had an uncanny memory – a single dance contains loads of information – sounds, moves, rhythms. There is a method of documenting dances but I never got around to learning or using it. But I remembered all the moves – easily.
Both of these examples reveal that my memory revolves around a bigger pictures. There needs to be some kind of story-line (be it a dance or a software system) which acts as a center of gravity for all the information I remember. It’s much easier to remember a picture then it is to remember all the points it contains, or to remember a melody then it’s notes. But (with me) it can’t be any story it has to be a story I can relate to and care about … it has to be a story that moves me … that shimmers for me.
Today I remember very little information about the systems I meticulously created and described many years ago. I do magically remember some of the dances I used to dance (this was put to the test about a year ago when I went in for a dance class with my sister who now carries the tap-torch). But I do remember both tap-dancing and systems-analysis clearly because they are a part of the bigger-picture story of my life.
2: What If There are Only Present Echoes?
When a drop of rain hits water it’s presence as a separate drop ceases to exist and is transformed into ripples. The ripples are a present manifestation of what it used to be.
What if there is no absolute memory – just ripples of the past in the present? What if all the experiences of my life are rippling through me – some stronger then others, some rippling above the surface, others rippling below, some moving in slow undercurrents others in apparent waves on the surface?
If all I have are present echoes – then my present state of consciousness and perception effects how I “remember”. Memory is no longer an activity (illusion?) of digging things up from some imaginary archive. Memory is how I experience the left-over ripples of past experiences. There is no past – only a rippling present.
3: Impressions instead of Memories?
I no longer subscribe to memory as an archive we can access. I don’t assume that I or others remember things. There may have been a shared experience and that experience may have left an impression on me and you and that impression may still be rippling differently through me and you – but that’s all there is – an impression. I don’t pretend to remember and I don’t pretend that you can either.
This can have quite on impact on dialogue … it smooths the edges off certainty … it turns attention inwards … it makes the present a softer less conclusive experience … it’s nice 🙂
4: What about Books & Computers? They Remember!
My mind just wouldn’t relent … it continued to challenge me … books and computers have “perfect memory” … and my mind almost had me convinced until I realized that (1) books and computers can only store what I choose to put in – which is drawn from a past experience of present and (2) when I come back and revisit words (and images and what not) I have stored – I am seeing them in a new present experience – it is impossible to experience them as they once were. No matter how many bookmarks I place in it – memory as an archive continues to be an illusion.
5: Do Snowflakes Remember?
These strange thoughts were sitting in my notebook until they resurfaced this morning when I came across this in the book Chaos: Making a New Science:
“As a growing snowflake falls to earth, typically floating in the wind for an hour or more, the choices made by the branching tips at any instant depend sensitively on such things as the temperature, the humidity, and the presence of impurities in the atmosphere. The six tips of a single snowflake, spreading within a millimeter space, feel the same temperatures, and because the laws of growth are purely deterministic, they maintain a near perfect symmetry. But the nature of turbulent air is such that any pair of snowflakes will experience very different paths. The final flake records the history of all the changing weather conditions it has experienced, and the combinations may as well be infinite.”
(Image complements of SnowCrystals)
Do you remember?