Sunday, October 10, 2010

constructing memory

"Memories are never just 'stored'; they are always created anew. Language does not just evoke memories; it can change them, and thereby change history--the story of the past." George Lakoff The Political Mind, page 231
Two weeks ago, I lead a discussion among our honors class students on "how do we know what we know?" We were talking about knowledge gained from personal experience (especially that which has strong emotional states attached), knowledge gained from observing others, knowledge acquired from trusted sources (and the various reasons why we trusted different sources), etc. Each type of means of obtaining knowledge prompted a students to provide examples from their own experience.

One student proffered her thoughts on knowledge we have without seeming to have a source for it -- the sixth sense so to speak. This occasioned several other students to provide examples of "knowing without knowing how" they knew. I also had an example to give for that as well; an example based on an incident when I was 18 and working in the public library -- in which I identified from across a crowded from a girl I'd never seen  or spoken to before, as the other "Sue Greer" whose phone calls I had been erroneously receiving for several months, then went up to her, spoke and verified the correctness of my identification. This is story is one that I have recounted dozens of times in the past 41 years to illustrate what I considered one concrete experience with knowing something through other than regular sensory channels.

Later in the same class discussion, another student with an extensive background in psychology spoke of the work of researchers in cognitive science (such as George Lakoff, above), who have determined that each time we "recall" something, we are actually constructing that memory, an act that of necessity changes the memory each time it is recalled. Those changes may be minuscule or sweeping in nature.

Following that class, I found myself standing in the ladies room looking at myself in the mirror, and realizing suddenly for the first time in more than four decades, that I have no idea how much of the story I told is "real." It feels real to me, and has had real influences on my beliefs and attitudes over those years. Some elements of the story seem solidly based -- I did work in the public library when I was 18, and there was another girl from elsewhere in the city with the same name as mine whose calls I did receive on occasion. I also am quite certain that I spent a fair amount of time while working in the library wondering what the other "Sue Greer" looked like, and if she might be one of the young women who came into the library. But as for the rest of it, I have no idea how much of that actually happened, and how much is a story that I have invented over the years.

The honors student who introduced us to this idea of the constructed nature of memory, was certain that while human memory and human perception are quite fallible that there was, in fact, an objective reality, an absolute truth to what had happened; a truth that might be revealed by objective instrumentation, such as video cameras. While there may an objective truth, independent of the humans viewing it with regard to the natural world (and I'm not wholly convinced of that given when I know about modern physics), I am quite certain that no such singular truth applies to human action.

Some months ago, I wrote (in "Singing the Truth Together") of the multidimensional, multiperspectival nature of human truth. When two (or more) people interact the truth of that interaction can only be arrived at by acknowledging all perspectives.

These two ideas -- the constructed nature of memory and the multidimensional nature of truth -- came together for me yesterday.  While searching for another Oberlin classmate on Facebook, I happened upon a familiar name from a class about 8 years behind mine -- that of a man that I had interviewed for the Oberlin College admissions office around 1977 or 1978. He had made such an impression on me during the interview -- that we continued to interact, by phone, letter, and in person occasionally over the next year.

My memories of our interaction, although not many, were vibrant, warm, and positive, so I sent him a Facebook message. I was pleased, but puzzled when he responded and his message began with an apology for being "a jerk" back then. I don't remember a "jerk", I remember some one who was a smart, interesting, exciting, unconventional,  "edgy" young man.

This disparity in our memories does give me hope that all the men from my past that I remember treating badly -- out of ignorance more than intention -- do not judge me as harshly in memory as I do myself.