The latest in the Serpentine’s Marathon series, Memory Marathon is a weekend long conference that positions itself at a place where science becomes philosophical. The speakers often sum up an enormous amount of complex knowledge- covering biology, neuroscience and robotics- into an introduction, then use the rest of their time to wander through the fascinating implications of the human brain. Introduced as a “group show that unfolds in time rather than space,” the careful curation and diversity of speakers means that often the connections that arise between talks are as fruitful as those within them.
Ed Cooke – proud owner of the title “Grand Master of Memory”- wonders why we feel okay saying publicly that we have an awful memory, when we would never so flippantly admit to, for instance, having awful emotional intelligence or terrible problem solving skills. This difference in response belies our relegation of memory to something mechanical and impersonal; we now externalise so much of our remembering- be it through writing, recording or using a range of external hard drives- that we no longer see memory as an integral part of ourselves.
New Yorker Israel Rosenfield’s speaking style is wild and swooping; energetically skimming and chatting through decades of research, until suddenly he dives into unfathomable scientific depths. Returning to the surface of mortal comprehension he offhandedly offers us his finds, most of which fundamentally alter our vision of what we believe ourselves to be. He speaks of how, rather than the dated idea of memory as recorded video tape stored in a back office like old CCTV, scientists now think the immune system is a much more accurate and useful analogy. The details are technical and impossible for me to paraphrase (you can read Rosenfield’s article on the topic here) but there was something very enjoyable about being able to eavesdrop as a fascinating discussion happened well over my head – a little like listening to poetry in a foreign language. When Rosenfield finally gathered the non-scientists back for the conclusion, I learned that the immune system and memory work by process of selection rather than, as previously assumed, imprinting and recording.
Memory is dynamic; memories change each time they are recollected, constantly shifting as they are coloured by present interpretations of the past and present visions of the future. Selection, in this context, means that each time we link a memory with a present event, store something in a particular category or order it according to its significance, paths are formed and neural patterns or maps are created. It is through these paths and processes becoming familiar, rather than through storing recorded data, that we order information and are able to recall it. This means that to speak of what memory is is difficult; if it involves the kinds of awareness of context and nuanced understanding of significance that we usually think of as being ‘us’ or our minds in general, it becomes much harder to isolate it as a function.
Speaker John Hull, who became completely blind at the age of forty eight, offers some beautiful illustrations of this point. Blindness, painfully and slowly forced him to reassess many common assumptions and dualities. He found that his eyes no longer working left him not only unable to see, but living in a “blind body”; seeing, he realised, informs the entire body. His brain and nervous system had to rewire themselves, creating completely new paths and patterns. Blindness, he explains, takes a person into an entirely different world; without vision, meanings and categories change. He gives as an example, his own front door: Where once there was the door, there is now just a set of things- door-knocker, letterbox, frosted window – the ‘doorness,’ the connecting context, is no longer there.
This interconnectivity is developed by Rosenfield’s assertion that colour doesn’t actually exist at all. As he is speaking, all around me in the audience I can see clear blocks of colour – the red coat of the woman next to me, a blue wool jumper to my left, a green scarf over the back of the seat in front – yet, he tells us, this is our brain, like a fleshy digital camera with its approximating pixels, categorising, then filling in the gaps. There is, unknown to us, something at work simplifying and ordering to help us to make sense of what we see.
The same is true of many other things we think of as raw sensory data. Flavour doesn’t exist; if we hold our nose when we eat there is no flavour, just a sweet, bitter or salty taste. It is within our brains that the input of smell and taste (and sight?) is synchronised to create what we refer to as the food’s flavour. Language works in a similar fashion; heard through each ear separately there are just grunts, whistles, and pauses and it is only when both ears are synchronised by the brain that the sounds form words. A more familiar example is the separate pictures or frames that are synchronised by our brains to make a continuous stream of motion in film. I am surprised to be surprised that there is so much work being done ‘behind the scenes’ before ‘we’ receive any information from the world at all (speaking about consciousness can feel a bit like being gay in company where it is not considered polite to mention such things: personal pronouns become troublesome.) It is by all this adding, shaping and selecting of familiar paths that the world we encounter every day gets invented.
What is called “the logic of the imagination” is also discussed by Grand Master Cooke. He asks us to imagine an image of Descartes’; a man playing the violin while whipping his dog. Because we know that a man needs both hands to play the instrument and would therefore need three hands to also be also whipping the dog, this is very hard to imagine (even for those not overly sensitive to issues of animal welfare). This is because the imagination is constrained by the body and by what the body knows. A few years ago I used to go indoor climbing with a friend who was doing a PhD on Spinoza. As we took it in turns to belay and struggle up the walls, he thought out-loud about things like ‘the mind being an idea had by the body’ and ‘bodies being something imagined by the mind’. For me, my experience of learning to climb seemed to chime with this; the way my body found its way into positions I never thought possible, seemed to make my mind better at finding new shapes to think in.
Luc Steels (Director of Sony Computer Science Lab) continues on this theme with his work on robotics: a robot who has suffered something akin to a robot-stroke can no longer close his right fist when instructed. There is nothing wrong with the mechanisms in his right hand, but a blockage seems to have formed in his wiring or ‘nervous system’ creating a malfunctioning connection between the ‘brain’ and the body. Steels uses a ‘Mirror box’ like one sometimes used with human stroke victims. Due to an illusion, this allows the robot, by moving his left fist, to see what he thinks is his right fist functioning perfectly. He is then able to move his right hand for real. Here the body is constrained by what the mind thinks it knows.
And like the missing doorness brought about by sight loss, without memory, we are left with what Hull refers to as “just staccato events.” Memory creates continuity and allows us to make sense of our stories. Marina Warner takes on this idea of story-making and weaves her ideas into a layered essay about the literal weaving of patterns. Looking at the stories in One-Thousand-and-One Nights she speaks about collective memory and of this ancient collaborative text as being something like jazz; full of riffs that develop and link, strands repeating and reforming. She compares the architecture and patterns found in the stories- the repeating motifs, meta-narrative framings and structural scaffolding- to the methods of weaving Persian and Arabic carpets found at a similar time. It is this universal recognition of what makes a satisfying pattern or narrative that shows how innate storytelling is to human beings, and how it forms a fundamental part of our mental functioning.
When using just one discipline, be it science, robotics or psychology to describe memory- as with attempts to describe consciousness- there seems to be a blockage or a point past which we cannot proceed. It is as if there is a black box within our minds we are unable to access. But when such different disciplines converge in this generous, free form way, trying less to explain or prove a particular view point, than to offer up various interesting angles on it, something closer to a poetic truth seems possible; not an answer or a definition but something more elusive, the kind of knowledge that cannot be easily put into words but is instead, felt.
John Hull spoke movingly about standing listening to the rain and later I found the fuller passage that I have copied below, on his blog. He is, it appears from the blog, a religious writer, but this was offered to us in secular form, with no mention of any God. It seems to somehow sum up much of what both an event like this and memory itself might be doing:
“This evening, at about nine o’clock, I was getting ready to leave the house. I opened the front door, and rain was falling… Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience. I can even make out the contours of the lawn, which rises to the right in a little hill. The sound of the rain is different and shapes out the curvature for me. The whole scene is much more differentiated than I have been able to describe, because everywhere are little breaks in the patterns, obstructions, projections, where some slight interruption or difference of texture or of echo gives an additional detail or dimension to the scene. The rain presents the fullness of an entire situation all at once, not merely remembered, not in anticipation, but actually and now. The rain gives a sense of perspective and of the actual relationships of one part of the world to another.”