Sunday 10 October 2010

Scientific memory or Romantic memory?

Persistence of memory
(The following debate was conducted in French: "Le souvenir, appartient-il au monde matériel, ou au monde spiritual?" The French version of this summary will follow shortly.)

Memory; is it merely a neurological function of recording and retrieving information from a past event: Or is it a fantasy, a ghostly apparition, or a poetic reinterpretation of our life experience? What is Freudian theory of « memory » ? Can memory be a reliable testimony / evidence of a past event? Can we trust anyone’s memory? What is the difference between « souvenir » and « mémoire » ? Memory, as a mental process of storing information, can it be replaced by technology, such as computer science? What is animal memory as opposed to human memory? These are questions our café-philosophers unearthed in our discussion yesterday.

Remembering and forgetting
Memory as a neurological function basically serves as a mechanism of storing, retaining and retrieval of information that we learn in our daily life. As memory records information that we perceived every minute, we can actually say that we are living in the past all the time, technically speaking.

Memory is not a function belonging uniquely to human beings. Most animals have superb memories, such as the elephant, who famously remembers every human face that has inflicted harm to his pride in the past – a vindictive species, who bears grudges against certain person and seeks to exact revenge when opportunity arises.

Some people are endowed with a photographic memory which enables them to become superb detective. Sherlock Holmes remarked that most people do not notice small things that pass in front of their eyes. It was his photographic memory and observation skills that marked him as the most famous private detective in the world.

If memories are used as important testimony/evidence in criminal prosecutions, we have to ask, can memory, as a mental process as opposed to material evidence, be trusted as a wholly reliable source of information? It is arguable that all memories are merely fantasies or imaginations. According to Sigmund Freud, repressed memories of traumatic events in childhood can resurface in later years, but they may well be false memories. As years passed, memories of many details are likely to fade, and one tends to make up the blank spots in their memories by using imaginations.

Memories used in education are now aided by the development of technology. Since the invention of calculators, children are no longer required to memorise the formulae of maths. The computer is the most acclaimed invention of the 20th century which not only revolutionised communication systems, it also largely replaced human effort of laborious record keeping. It seems that the future of Mankind is indeed under the threat of being taken over by machines – as predicted in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

Poetic memories
As our café-philosophers are not neuroscientists, or cognitive psychologists, it is better to devote our debating skill to discussing the romantic/sentimental aspect of “memories.”

Some authors like to declare in the introduction of their books that their story is based partly on memories of true facts, and partly on imagination. But who cares if you say it refers to actual facts or not? As we have already discussed above, all memories can be fabricated unless there is supporting material evidence.

In Marcel Proust’s “A la recherche du temps perdu”, a semi-autobiography, he recalled his past by using what he named as “involuntary memory (la mémoire involontaire)” – “a conception of human memory in which cues encountered in everyday life evoke recollections of the past without conscious effort.” (Wikipedia)

Some poets and writers (e.g. Lord Byron) consciously sought adventures in society to find inspiration for their creative writing.  Many non-creative people may have lived through the most extraordinary events in their life but unable to record their experiences as a result of their lack of talent, while certain creative people (e.g. M.Proust, J.K.Huysmans) have never experienced any exciting event in their entire life. Cooped-up in their bourgeois homes, they spent most their days fantasizing and contemplating the meaning of their cloistered existence. It is their imagination and fantasy, not their memory of actual events that added charm to our boring and grey existence.

A final thought, to what extent can HISTORY - supposedly the official records of our collective memories - be trusted, how much of it is truth?  What if all we had been taught, all we had read in the history book were nothing but lies?   As Napoleon remarked once, history is "a fable agreed upon."

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