I tried to edit the above piece that I posted here some six years ago. I particularly wanted to fix the apostrophes which many internet sites have been unable to insert without difficulty. Sadly, this was not possible. I will, though, while I'm here at this site, post one item on impulse. This item on impulse is what you might call "a general context for impulse" as it is currently expressed in my own writing.
A thread now exists for readers who come to this site in the years and decades ahead. Readers who find these two posts of interest are welcome to comment and, if they just want to enjoy the reading, that to is welcome. If readers find that, by the time they get to the second paragraph of the first post, their eyes start to glaze over with intellectual fatigue and boredom, just do what I do and have done for decades: stop reading and go somewhere else.-Ron Price, Australia
AUTOBIOGRAPHY, MEMORY AND IMAGINATION
About the age of 40 I started to take an interest in writing my autobiography, my memoirs, and in keeping a diary. It has now been 30 years, 1983 to 2013, during which I have written a great deal about my first 40 years of living as well as the next 30, the 30 in which I have continued writing personal history, reminiscences, life-narrative. This morning when I came across an article in The New York Review of Books
(1) by Oliver Sacks about autobiographical memory, I could not help but take some interest. In this essay of some 2000 words I quote liberally from Sacks and from Daniel Schacter(1952- ), an American psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.
Sacks is a British-American biologist, neurologist, writer, and amateur chemist. He was a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University where he held the position of "Columbia Artist". He spent many years on the clinical faculty of Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In September 2012 Sacks was appointed clinical professor of neurology at NYU Medical Centre, with support from The Gatsby Charitable Foundation. He also holds the position of visiting professor at the UK's University of Warwick.
Sacks writes in this article that at the age of 60 he “started to experience a curious phenomenon—the spontaneous, unsolicited rising of early memories into my mind, memories that had lain dormant for upward of fifty years. Not merely memories, but frames of mind, thoughts, atmospheres, and passions associated with them…..a more general autobiographical impulse was stimulated,
rather than sated.” By his mid-60s Sacks was launched on a three-year project of writing a memoir of his boyhood which he published in 2001 as Uncle Tungsten.(1)
Sacks says that he expected some deficiencies of memory because the events he was writing about had occurred fifty or more years earlier, and most of those who might have shared his memories, or checked his facts, were now dead. He did not write letters or keep notebooks during the first fifteen years of his life, as he had done quite assiduously from the age of 18 onwards. He accepted that he must have forgotten or lost a great deal, but he assumed that the memories he did have, especially those that were very vivid, concrete, and circumstantial, were essentially valid and reliable. It was a shock to him when he found that some of his memories were not.
I, too, found that in the first ten years of my writing of diaristic, journalistic, life-story material, in my 40s and 50s, there were some deficiencies of memory. My main problem, though, was that by the age of 50, after I had recorded the outline, the general details, the basics, of my experience that the account was too tedious to read. It was so tedious that I spent the next ten years, my 50s, reading about the field of autobiography, reading about the literary and conceptual issues involved as a genre and the concerns, theoretical and practical, that face both writers and readers of autobiography.
There is scarcely a human activity that is not affected by memory. I could not overestimate the importance of memory. Without memory I could not write anything. Daniel Schacter informs me2 that I should not feel disappointed to find out that we don't really know how memory works. There is no universally agreed upon model of the mind/brain, and no universally agreed upon model of how memory works. Two models popular with materialists, the behaviourist model and that of cognitive psychology which sees the brain as a computer, are rejected by Schacter because they cannot account for the subjective and present-need basis of memory.
Lest dualists get their hopes up, Schacter's concern for a model which does justice to subjectivity has nothing to do with a concern for a "transcendental unity of apperception" or a "self" to be distinguished from the self's memories. Subjectivity in remembering, he says, involves at least three important factors. One, memories are constructions made in accordance with present needs, desires, influences, etc. Two, memories are often accompanied by feelings and emotions. Three, memory usually involves the person’s awareness of the memory. A good model of how memory works must not only fit with scientific knowledge, but also fit with the subjective nature of memory.
Schacter presents a sketch of a model which incorporates elements of both a neurological and a psychological model of memory. He notes that there should only be one correct neurological model, or N-model, a model of how the brain and neural network function in memory. This is a descriptive model of functions and causal connections. There may be, though, several psychological models, or P-models, of memory; each of them must be true to the N-model, as well as to subjective experience, to be adequate. P-models are explanatory models, trying to help us make sense out of the experiences of remembering and forgetting.
One P-model, for example, sees memory as a present act of consciousness, reconstructive of the past, stimulated by an analogue of an engram called the "retrieval cue." The engram is the neural network representing fragments of past experience. Schacter elaborates throughout his book on studies supporting the notion that memories are reconstructions of the past and might better be thought of as a collage or a jigsaw puzzle rather than as a tape recording, a picture, or a video clip, stored as wholes. On this model, perceptual or conscious experience does not record all sense data experienced. Most sense data is not stored at all. What is stored are rather bits and fragments of experience which are encoded in engrams. Exactly how they are encoded is not completely understood, but Schacter outlines what progress has been made in understanding the complexities of neural encoding. Many psychologists believe that memories are stored in specific places and that, even though we may not remember much of our past, the right stimulus will evoke a memory of things long forgotten. These psychologists believe that every experience is permanently stored in the mind.
Other studies indicate that encoding involves various connections between different parts of the brain. In fact, what is being discovered is that there are distinct types and elements of memory which involve different parts of the brain. Schacter does an excellent job of not getting overtechnical or burdening the reader with extraneous jargon. On the P-model described in the previous paragraph, forgetting is due either to weak encoding, to lack of a retrieval cue, to time and the replacement in the neural network by later experiences, to repetitive experiences, or to keep us from going crazy. The chances of remembering something improve by "consolidation," creating strong encoding. Thinking and talking about an experience enhances the chances of remembering it. One of the more well-known techniques of remembering involves the process of association.
My problem in writing about my past had less to do with amnesia, and more to do with meaning and the problems of a literary reconstruction. I just could not write in an interesting way. What I wrote was boring to me and I hesitated in making such a boring text available to others.
Some students to memory argue that alcohol, drugs, brain injury or disease, or psychological trauma and repressed memories often result in amnesia. The repressed memory therapists seem to start with the assumption that most of their patients suffer from amnesia, but the amnesia is very specific and always involves just the kind of thing most people would remember. As I say above, though, I did not see memory and forgetting as a problem. I needed a creative, a healthy, cryptomnesia. I needed something that would allow old thoughts to be reassembled, retranscribed, recategorized, given new and fresh implications. I needed forgettings and rememberings that would help me compose. I needed creativity and imagination in order that my memories and ideas could be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.
Helen Keller(1880-1968) was an American author, political activist, and lecturer. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She had a remarkable imagination and mind which could not have developed and become as rich as they were without appropriating the language of others. Perhaps in a general sense we are all dependent on the thoughts and images of others. I certainly have been in the last 30 years as I went about recording my life experiences in writing. The language of others was crucial in my recreation of my life.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had several gifts: an enormous reading capacity, a retentive memory, a talker’s talent for conjuring and orchestrating other people’s ideas, and the natural instinct of a lecturer and preacher to harvest materials wherever he found them. Literary borrowing was commonplace in his day. It had been since the seventeenth century—Shakespeare borrowed freely from many of his contemporaries, as did Milton.4 Friendly borrowing remained common in the eighteenth century, and Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey all borrowed from one another, sometimes even, according to Holmes, publishing work under each other’s names.
There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections. Memory depends as much on our imagination as our senses. There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected.
But what was common, natural, and playful in Coleridge’s youth gradually took on a more disquieting form, especially in relation to the German philosophers whom he discovered, venerated, translated, and finally came to use in the most extraordinary way. Whole pages of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria consist of unacknowledged, verbatim passages from Schelling. While this unconcealed and damaging behavior has been readily categorized as “literary kleptomania,” what actually went on is complex and mysterious.
Holmes explores this literary kleptomania in the second volume of his biography, where he sees the most flagrant of Coleridge’s plagiarisms as occurring at a devastatingly difficult period of his life, when he had been abandoned by Wordsworth, was disabled by profound anxiety and intellectual self-doubt, and more deeply addicted to opium than ever. At this time, Holmes writes, “his German authors gave him support and comfort: in a metaphor he often used himself, he twined round them like ivy round an oak.”
The neuroscientist Gerald M. Edelman often speaks of perceiving as “creating,” and remembering as “recreating” or “recategorizing.” Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable.
We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections—but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information.
Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.
-Ron Price with thanks to 1Oliver Sacks, Speak, Memory, 21/2/’13, The New York Review of Books, and Amazon: “Long before Oliver Sacks became a distinguished neurologist and bestselling writer, he was a small English boy fascinated by metals and by chemical reactions, the louder and smellier the better he says, as well as photography, squids and cuttlefish, H.G. Wells, and the periodic table. In his endlessly charming and eloquent memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings chronicles his love affair with science and the magnificently odd and sometimes harrowing childhood in which that love affair unfolded”; and 2 Daniel Schacter, Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past, New York: Basic Books, 1996.