memory

Last weekend Mistaya celebrated her 30th birthday by renting a cottage a couple hours out of Montreal and bringing a group of us out there for a saturday night slumber party. Danny and I were called upon to arrange for dinner, so we did what anyone else faced with feeding a dozen people would do and brought frozen lasagna. Unfortunately, I was a bit aggressive with the intoxicants and eating lasagna is about the last thing I remember from the evening. I woke up on Sunday morning in my apartment, saw Danny and Amit just rising from sleep on my futon, and asked them if they wanted to go for brunch. Danny asked me why I wasn’t at work, and I told him I wasn’t working this Sunday. It’s Monday, he said.

So not only am I amnestic to whatever happened on Saturday after dinner, my memories do not resume until Monday morning. Very unsettling.

Last night Benji celebrated his 31st birthday with a house party of about 50 poorly-dressed people drinking and guitar-strumming. Many stories from last weekend were discussed, for example, Felber recounted my staring at a kitchen cabinet (not the contents of the cabinet, just the door itself) for 30 minutes. Very unsettling not to remember any of this, but at least it’s clear I had a good time. It got me to thinking about the value of non-remembered experiences, and I had a quick discussion with Rodney on the subject. In his usual mode of impartiality he insinuated memory of an event a single attribute among many, so that a non-remembered event might be just as valuable to someone as a remembered event. He suggested that many of us will forget much of our lives toward the end of our life and this does not devalue the forgotten experiences. He suggested that being tortured for 24 hours is a very significant occurrence, even if you don’t remember it the next day. Certainly his examples ring true, but on reflection they don’t really support the idea that memory is just one aspect of an event, competing with all other aspects for value. Memory is more important than that.

As you undergo an event, it has an experiential value which can be positive, or negative, or both (the zen farmer would say you have no way of knowing what its value is). If, at the end of that event, you forget it immediately (e.g. last Saturday night and Sunday), it does not lose the value it had as it was being experienced, but can not take on any additional value. As long as the memory of that event persists, however, it continues to have value – a value that changes over time. Usually its value becomes progressively smaller until the memory disappears. Sometimes its value can become suddenly much larger, for example if a trivial comment you made to a friend last week gets back to your boss and forms the basis for your dismissal. Photographs have the effect of increasing a memory’s value with each viewing, and since most photographed events are positive, we obsess over photographs for good reason, as they interrupt the tendency to forget and allow an event to continue to have value indefinitely. Unfortunately that obsession, when unchecked, interferes with the event itself, most obviously when tourists are so busy snapping photos they forget to see what they’re shooting.

A somewhat ridiculous but instructive way to think about successful living is to divide one’s life into discrete moments, and assign a satisfaction score to each moment. My satisfaction score is the sum of all the forces that make me happy at this moment, minus the sum of all the forces that make me unhappy at this moment. Positive memories act as forces that make us happy as long as we remember them, and now it’s easy to see why a remembered event is so much more valuable than a forgotton event. I may have had the time of my life last weekend, but the total value of that good time pales when compared to the more modestly good but remembered time I had last night, because the more modestly good time I had last night will continue to contribute to my moment-to-moment happiness, and therefore my total overall cumulative life happiness (!) for as long as I remember it. Conversely, bad memories continue to contribute negatively to TOCLH for as long as they are remembered, and once you forget a bad memory, you benefit from more happiness from the time you forget the bad memory until you die. This is of course the idea behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

There are ways in which an event can be valuable other than its experiential value; for example, one may have no memory of lifting weights for 20 years but still benefits from having great physical strength. In the case of last weekend, I added to the debaucherous vibe at the cottage. That has some value.

A second wrinkle is that my “memory” of last weekend is being repopulated by people discussing it. I now have an image of myself staring at a kitchen cabinet door for 30 minutes. Felber told me in the middle of the kitchen cabinet show he walked up to me and said something, I turned to him briefly, barely acknowledged his statement or his presence, and quickly returned my attention to the cabinet. Now I have formed what I call a pseudomemory, and these seem to be no less valuable than real memories, except that they may differ from actual events. If you tell a lie enough times and with enough force, you form a pseudomemory of it – not just of the lie, but of the content of the lie. For example if you tell everyone you hit a home run when you were in 8th grade, you may actually form a pseudomemory of hitting a home run in the eighth grade. This is important if you’re called upon to verify the lie.

The value of a memory has the potential to be of much greater value than the event itself – in the case of a pseudomemory generated by a lie, the value of the pseudomemory is infinitely greater than the event itself because there is no event itself. This means that you could add great value to your life by forming positive pseudomemories, but for most people the value of a memory will be proportional to its correlation with the truth. This is to say that my valuation of the pseudomemory of staring at the kitchen cabinet for 30 minutes is dependent on my believing Felber’s story. In fact, my instinct, on hearing his story, was to corroborate it. If I don’t demand evidence to validate the story, you can see how in time the line between pseudomemory and memory could blur, and ultimately I could forget Felber’s telling the story and recall only the pseudomemory of staring at the cabinet. At that point I will truly believe that the pseudomemory corresponds to actual events, and if Felber was pulling my chain, the deception will be complete, and the story will be a truth. What is necessary for deception to become truth is to relax the demand for experiential evidence and corroboration; this is called faith.

Somewhere in between memory and pseudomemory is a dream.

4 thoughts on “memory

  1. reuben

    As usual, elliott is taking a bit too much credit. He did make me rewrite paragraph #4, which on review was indeed unreadable. Here it is in its original version.

    As you undergo an event, it has an experiential value x. X can be positive or negative, or both, the zen farmer would say you have no way of knowing what the value of x is, but in any case, as you undergo an event it has value x. If, at the end of that event, you forget it immediately (e.g. last Saturday night and Sunday), its value remains at x. As long as the memory of that event persists, however, it continues to have value. The present value of the event will change over time: to continue the mathematical model x is modified by continuously-changing coefficient y so that the present value of a recalled event is xy. Usually y becomes smaller over time, until it becomes zero and the memory disappears. Sometimes y can become suddenly much larger, for example if a trivial comment you made to a friend last week gets back to your boss and forms the basis for your dismissal. Photographs have the effect of increasing y with each viewing, and since x is usually positive, we obsess over photographs for good reason, as they interrupt the tendency of y to degrade and allow an event to continue to have value over time. Unfortunately that obsession, when unchecked, interferes with x itself, most obviously when tourists are so busy snapping photos they forget to see what their shooting.

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