Tag Archive | memory

How old are you?

I have often noticed and sometimes remarked on how, as I age, my self-image is different from what I see in a mirror. I’m not sure if any of us ever manage to coordinate the two. We continue to see ourselves as younger than we really are. There are a plethora of quotations from the famous and not so famous about the problem.

Said E. B. White, “Old age is a special problem for me because I’ve never been able to shed the mental image I have of myself – a lad of about 19.”

Charles Olson declared, “I remember way back when I was young, 10 years ago.”

And from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Old age is fifteen years older than I am.”

My favorite of the more recent remarks I’ve read isn’t so much about old age as just aging generally. It comes from Margaret Atwood. “I believe that everyone else my age is an adult whereas I am merely in disguise.”

The most comforting statement comes from Madeleine L’Engle:  “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”

Exactly.

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Memory and plagiarism

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Oliver Sacks writes eloquently about memory and imagination in the February 21 issue of the New York Review of Books, sharing his memory of a war-time event from his childhood and subsequently learning from his brother that he hadn’t lived it but had reconstructed it for himself from the description in a letter. He cites examples of memories enhanced or entirely made by the imagination from everyone from Ronald Reagan to Helen Keller and Samuel Coleridge. False memories are enjoyed with the same vivacity as those with a factual basis. There is no way to tell them apart in our subjective experience of them. Plagiarism is as natural to us as breathing.

Scary stuff, I thought. Reality becomes rocky and insubstantial. All our heralded battles for truth turn into fights that may have already been thrown. Without DNA or a filmed record, we can’t prove a thing.

But Sacks, looks at it from another perspective, and reality becomes more instead of less. I can only quote him:

Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge….

Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

Nostalgia in old age

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As we age, I think many of our memories grow more poignant. We know in a way we haven’t before that the people, places and times represented by them won’t be repeated. Because they have that extra dimension, they’re more powerful. More moving. And therefore more important for art.

A utilitarian view of nostalgia.

Which category were you in?

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On occasion, when I drive from place to place in the afternoon in Vermont, I listen in an incidental way to National Public Radio. The other afternoon as I tried to pilot the car through the ruts and snowy trenches of what is almost mud season, except that another blizzard was on its way, I listened to The Story, featuring an interview with a young man who was trying to reduce gun violence in Chicago. The interviewer (Dick) was trying to get the fellow to describe high school students’ motives for acquiring guns. The kid talked about kids trying to figure out who they were in school, and needing to belong to different categories: ladies’ man, athlete, hero, nerd…. “You have to be in some category,” he explained.

The interviewer wasn’t especially interested in that construction, but I was. The secondary school assignation of categories still haunts me after all these decades. Some students were popular; some were squares; some were “cheap.” I know that breakdown varies from place to place and time to time, but it distorted and sometimes still distorts how I see myself and others. Scary to think of the harm it’s done. Hard to believe that schools can’t quash it. They might change the world.

Fragments of time

Most of us walk around with time strapped to our wrists, and most of our watches are digital. We see only one number at a time. On the other hand, for those of us who still use a circular clock face, that number is seen in the context of many others. It’s located by moving hands. Time experienced as analogue has a wholeness and flow that digital time doesn’t.

Does this have anything to do with the fragmentation of our lives?

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The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

The movies in my mind

I and most of the people I know who are my age, or almost, forget the most familiar names with a frequency that would be more alarming if there weren’t so many of us doing it. I’ve been told, and therefore I’ve known to expect that early and childhood memories will come back with greater pungency as I age. I like to think it will make up for all those lost nouns!  I hadn’t expected it to start happening quite this soon, but I do find, especially while I should be concentrating on practicing the piano, that memories of all sorts from decades ago cascade across my mind willy nilly. I may not get better at the piano, but I am enjoying the movies.

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Remembering is so complicated, how do we do it …. ?

I’m still reading Searching for Memory:The Brain, The Mind and The Past. It’s a long book and I may be at it for some time, but never fear. That doesn’t mean that every post will be about it, especially as I’m finding it somewhat dispiriting. Most of the book is about the complexities of remembering. It’s not just that memories aren’t like the movies. They’re the product of scraps of things actually remembered, and of the hard work of reconstruction of time past—using the expectations, the imagination, the general knowledge of the self and life, and God only knows what else.  As I said, I’m still reading.

Nevertheless, Daniel Schecter, the author, does close on an uplifting note (yes, I’m one of those people who read the conclusion of a book before its middle):

On balance, however, our memory systems do a remarkably good job of preserving the general contours of our pasts and of recording correctly many of the important things that have happened to us. We could not have evolved as a species otherwise. Memory is a central part of the brain’s attempt to make sense of experience, and to tell coherent stories about it. These tales are all we have of our pasts, and so they are potent determinants of how we view ourselves and what we do. Yet our stories are built from nay different ingredients: snippets of what actually happened, thoughts about what might have happened, and beliefs that guide us as we attempt to remember. Our memories are the fragile but powerful products of what we recall from the past, believe about the present, and imagine about the future.

One more note: Schecter cites the tendency of older people to think about the past. There was a time when it was thought that “living in the past” would produce depression and despair. The attendants in nursing homes discouraged it and recommended bingo instead. Today, older people in institutional settings and without, are encouraged to tell their stories of the past.
Schecter worries that computer memory is replacing the story teller in our culture. If he were writing today instead of the 1990s he might be reassured: the many, many blogs by older writers on the internet are filled with stories of the past. The genealogy and the oral histories that it encourages are greeted enthusiastically by the culture.
Schecter argues that elderly story tellers play a major and creative role in connecting the past with the present. One of the most damaging things done to Native American societies was the discrediting of the elderly story tellers in their midst.

In today’s Time Goes By (still the premier blog for issues related to aging), Ronni Bennett talks about a New Year’s article by Oliver Sacks in the New York Times about the plasticity of the brain and how it can be rewired by most of us. He writes:

While some areas of the brain are hard-wired from birth or early childhood, other areas—especially in the cerebral cortex, which is central to higher cognitive powers like language and thought, as well as sensory and motor functions—can be, to a remarkable extent, rewired as we grow older.

While this is no longer news, it’s  just as exciting as it was the first day it was cited. As usual, Sacks makes the subject come alive with stories of individuals who have put it to the test. But he also poses some interesting questions: “That the brain is capable of such radical adaptation raises deep questions. To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains? And can the brain’s ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers? ….”

My favorite example is that of Eliza Bussey, “a journalist in her mid-50s who now studies harp at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, who could not read a note of music a few years ago. “In a letter to me,”  says Sacks,  “she wrote about what it was like learning to play Handel’s “’Passacaille:’” ‘I have felt, for example, my brain and fingers trying to connect, to form new synapese. … I know that my brain has dramatically changed.’”

And since I’ve been trying to play the piano again in my late 60s and 70s—hoping against hope that there will be no arthritis, no stroke, not anything, to stop me… Eliza Bussey’s story is one I especially like.

Photo by Jeff Greenwood. Flickr. Creative Commons.