Sorry, I think you might have remembered that wrong.

I recently read an article about the process in which our brain recalls our memories. Before I progress any further, perhaps it would be humane of me to recommend that you do not continue reading this if you have a very expectant relationship with memories, by which I mean that you’re an enthusiast for the whole notion that age fades but the memories stays.

Perhaps even crueller of me was to write this word of warning, for I find that it is always precisely when one is told to avoid something that we are compelled to it more. The act of denying itself tampers desire. Even Augustus had to admit that Ovid had a valid point when he wrote in Amores 3.4:

“nitimur in vetitum semper cupimusque negata; sic interdictis imminent aeger aquis.”

“We always strive for what’s forbidden and desire what’s denied: thus the sick man longs for the water he is refused.” [2]

The little aside over, the essence of the article was exploring how the brain infallibly distorts our memory every time we recall it, and in the process of recollection itself, we are in fact only deceiving ourselves into believing we are evoking the original experience, when in actual fact we are simply remembering the last time we educed the memory.  Evidently this poses a problem for us all, by suggesting that even the most cherished of memories will inevitably fade over time. I’m not exactly sure what we’re supposed to do in this predicament where both the physical world and noumenal world dwindle without consent. Perhaps I am just too much of an emotionalist, who needs to be comforted in the sentiment that when we part with someone, be it through death or just the pretext of time itself, that we still have a part of them unspoiled in our memories. I generally find that when I attempt to revive a matured memory, I do in fact subconsciously reconstruct it, generally idealising it, and at the same time I seem to view them not from a first person perspective but as an outsider looking in on the actions of my own experience. It’s an odd and perhaps slightly disconcerting proficiency.  

More thought provoking than the article itself, were the comments people posted in response to it. Many of the idealists, with whom I both sympathise and identify with, claim that in recalling memories one is in fact further embedding it deeper in some neural chamber. I personally find this hard to believe- perhaps if, like in Harry Potter, teardrops held memories and could be re-experienced in a pensieve, I would be more inclined to agree. Whilst some have proposed that this lapse in our brain’s aptitude to faultlessly recall memories is a defect, it could certainly be a survival mechanism in which humans are under obligation not to scrutinize every single moment. True it is that in recollecting an emotionally significant experience one may be allowed to resurface the intensity and force of that experience once again, yet just as ruinous would it be if we were made to remember flawlessly every wrong we had committed or regret we had partaken in.

In grappling with the notion of memory, I recalled (ironically) a poem by Wordsworth, which I had studied for my A-level English course and in particular the following passage has sustained a pertinent implication for me:

The picture of the mind revives again:

While here I stand, not only with the sense      

Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts      

That in this moment there is life and food      

For future years. And so I dare to hope,

Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first      

I came among these hills; when like a roe      

I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides      

Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,      

Wherever nature led: more like a man                            70      

Flying from something that he dreads, than one      

Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then       

(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,      

And their glad animal movements all gone by)      

To me was all in all.–I cannot paint      

What then I was. The sounding cataract      

Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,      

The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,      

Their colours and their forms, were then to me      

An appetite; a feeling and a love,                              80      

That had no need of a remoter charm,      

By thought supplied, nor any interest      

Unborrowed from the eye.–That time is past,      

And all its aching joys are now no more,      

And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this      

Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur, other gifts      

Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,      

Abundant recompence. For I have learned      

To look on nature, not as in the hour      

Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes                    90     

 The still, sad music of humanity.

(“Tintern Abbey” by Williams Wordsworth[1])

It seems to me that what Wordsworth proposes (at least in this little fragment) is that one should not constantly endeavour to revive the dormant memories that lay concealed in the hollows of our brains, in an attempt to understand what once was. We are not living in the magical world of Harry Potter whereby we can, or should want for that matter to examine our memories at one’s leisure in order that it become easier to spot patterns and links, but rather as I comprehend Wordsworth to suggest, it is in observing ourselves in our current surrounding that we may grasp a reflection of who we truly are. Of course it is true to an extent that thy memory be as a dwelling-place for all sweet sounds and harmonies, but we should not restrict ourselves to the recess of our memories, lest we allow our past to dictate our future contingency and reduce ourselves to skeletons of men trying to be whole.

[2] Ovid Amores translation:

[3] The article as mentioned above:

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