Thursday, September 10, 2009

Blogging to Create Memories

(This post is more philosophical and as such will probably remain a work-in-progress as I think of new things to add, modify or subtract. So what you read now may not be the final version!)

I have referred a couple times to a book I just finished today: Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by the neuroscientist David Eagleman.

The book is a collection of short -- very short, 4 or 5 pages each -- imagined versions of the afterlife. Most of them are fascinatingly clever.

The last was titled Reversal and begins:

There is no afterlife, but that doesn't mean we don't get to live a second time.

At some point the expansion of the universe will slow down, stop, and begin to contract and at that point the arrow of time will reverse. Everyhing that happened on the way out will happen again, but backward. In this way our life neither dies nor disintegrates, but rewinds.

He then goes on to illustrate how this would happen beginning with you being "born" by being dug out of your grave!

However, the really astute observation comes at the end of his tale (as usual):

In this reverse life you have blissful expectations about what will come next as you experience your story backward. ....

But you have a painful surprise in store. You discover that your memory has spent a lifetime manufacturing small myths to keep your life story consistent with who you thought you were. You have committed to a coherent narrative, misremembering little details and decisions and sequences of events. On the way back , the cloth of that story line unravels. Reversing through the corridors of your life, you are battered and bruised in the collisions between reminiscence and reality. By the time you enter the womb again, you understand as little about yourself as you did your first time here. (Empasis added)

So true.

I am often thought to have a near photographic memory. I don't believe this is true but I do have a knack for storing lots of facts (oftentimes trivial, at least to others) that I can recall on demand (for example, past news or sport events).

But my memory is also highly selective. (Ask my wife!) There are many periods of my life (e.g. college) for which I have few concrete memories. Had I kept a diary during my college days, I would probably not even recognize myself if I read it now. My current misrememberings are so great as to probably bear little resemblance to my contemporaneous recordings.

This does not however mean that the contemporaneous recordings are more true recollections than the current ones, except so far as they simply note "factual" events. This is because all memories are processed memories. Not every sensation that enters our awareness is recorded. Our mind quickly filters what is important and not important according to a larger narrative we have constructed about who we are, as Eagleman suggests, and the more "meaningful" sensations become more permanent as they are fitted into this myth pattern.

Blogging is just a public form of journaling. But it is not simply a contemporaneous recording of events; it is the creation of a myth. In a very real way, I am creating the memories of my time in Paris by selectively reconstructing what I have experienced. Blogging forces me to re-live my day and in so doing I give some meaning to what happened and that meaning becomes the reality, regardless of what really happened. I mean what does it matter whether this is that happened if your mind has constructed a different memory?

In Eagleman's tale, he refers to being battered by the "collisions between reminiscence and reality" but really what he refers to as "reality" is just the same events being processed by a mind that has a completely different perspective than it did the first time. The reverse trip through his life simply creates new misrememberings, new myths based on, hopefully, a more nuanced and complete understanding of who we think we are.

My life has gone through several re-rememberings, in which the meaning I assigned to past events, gets reinterpreted based on a new philosophical or religious perspective. I think we are all constantly doing this. Like a cow chewing its cud, we regurgitate suppressed memories (conscious or unconscious) and attempt to make them "fit" into meaningful digestible patterns.

So, yes, my 11 Weeks in Paris becomes a new myth that involves me applying my current self-understanding to these new experiences. I am creating memories, not simply recalling them. I am shaping what will be for all intents and purposes the reality of my time here in Paris and integrating that into the larger reality of my life, which will in turn shape my experiences when I return home. Indeed that is a large reason for doing something like this.

I could do this privately of course -- in a diary -- but it's not the same.

Since blogging is public, it forces me to view my stories as if someone else were reading them, which forces me to step outside of myself, so-to-speak, and shape my story in a more reflective and detached fashion.

In the distant future, when I look back on what I have recorded here, it will not be so much to remember (or refresh my memory of) specific events in order to recreate the pleasure of those experiences (although that might occur) as it will be to observe who the person was that created these memories because he won't be the same person who will be reading it.

[If you have thoughts on this line of thinking, please post them.]

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