4 min read

Memory miscellany

I've got memory on the brain at the moment. Well, I suppose we all do, but what I mean is that I keep thinking about it. This post is a hodgepodge of memory-related fragments.

Image streaming

I'm still sporadically continuing with the image streaming. There haven't been any spectacular new changes, and I haven't magically learned to visualise, so this isn't going to be a particularly interesting update. Still, there seems to be something subtle going on that seems worth exploring more.

I'm still mostly just bringing up memories of objects, mostly ones from childhood. For example, I remembered that my primary school benches had these sort of walrus-tooth-like hooks on the bottom for attaching to other gym equipment. (Told you that this wasn't going to be a particularly interesting update.)

The subtle thing is that these very visually textured memories seem to be more available outside of the image streaming. Like I've turned a tap a bit higher, just a bit, but enough to notice. More on that later.

Justice the horse

ACX had a piece on the use of the word 'justice' the other day, which made me start thinking about my own associations with the word. I was getting a sense of something solid, Victorian, morality-tale-tinged, and... um... horse-like?? Then - oh! - I realised I was thinking about a specific horse called Justice, a character in Black Beauty. I read that as a kid and it was probably one of the first places I encountered the word. As far as I can tell I've been dragging this horse along with me every time I've tried to think about this supposedly abstract concept.

It's not a completely random association, because Anna Sewell often uses her horse characters as mouthpieces for chunks of moral instruction, and Justice appears in one of these kinds of chapters where the horses are standing around talking about various instances of human cruelty or generosity that they remember. That's where the heavy Victorian atmosphere is coming from.

Also there's this fragment that comes up:

All evil to scatter, and justice to bring
On earth as in heaven, for Thou art the King

This is from some variant on the Nicene Creed sung to the tune of 'Cwm Rhondda' that we mumbled our way through at church some weeks. So, yeah... dusty old pews, Victorian horses... these are my root associations for 'justice', apparently.

I'm now much more aware of the huge power you can wield by using one of these abstract virtue words in a piece of children’s media… if you get in there early you can maybe flavour the tone of it for a generation. I was never into superhero stuff as a kid, but I'm wondering if the Justice League is a major association for a lot of people?

'Effortless, subtle, pervasive limning'

I'm not on twitter right now so I can't link to the original tweet, but @nosilverv posted a text screenshot recently that turns out to be from this forum post... seems to have been posted by some random guy but the original author is clearly @meditationstuff. Anyway it's a fascinating speculation about what's missing in depersonalisation/derealisation. Key part:

Anyway, for the dp/dr and lack-of-self experiences, I think I've identified the common core phenomenology, or lack thereof. Analogous to Capgras and Cotard, I claim that something's missing: I claim that what's missing is spontaneous, usually tacit autobiographical memory. For people who don't experience dp/dr, I claim that memory limns conscious experience most of the time, not necessarily explicitly. It's a tacit sense of past (and future; overlapping machinery), which sometimes makes it to the level of "quasi-imagery," and sometimes makes it to the level of consciously reflected-upon memory. I hypothesize that, in dp/dr and bpd, one large facet of the experience is alack of this pervasive-, ubiquitous-yet-subtle injection of memory-sense into consciousness.

For these individuals, this memory-sense gets reduced or suppressed because it hurts or it's terrifying or it's dangerous. The brain evolved to be able to shut it off, and the brain evolved triggers to do so, and so it does. And it can become a mental habit, a mental clenched fist, even after the danger has passed, or because the danger is "ongoing," even if that danger is endogenous. So, no automatic memory injection via at least one neurological mechanism. Memory maybe does make it through over a certain threshold of intensity, or via evolved neural gating, or via deliberate reminiscence, or via other pathways to consciousness. But not this automatic, effortless, subtle, pervasive limning that I'm talking about, here.

(Sidenote: 'limn' is a nice, underused word)

I don't know where i am on this memory-sense spectrum, but I do feel like something's changed subtly for me in this area recently. Image streaming is letting a bit more come up and (the bigger effect) meditation is letting me sit with the more unpleasant parts of that. I don't know, I'm finding this hard to write up because I like examples, and it's not a big intense effect where I can point at a really striking example. But... I was in London last weekend around the UCL area where I went to university, so lots of memory ghosts everywhere, and things were coming up in a more visual-oriented way than normal. Wheeling timpanis down Euston Road, getting locked in St Pancras Church churchyard (I'd forgotten this one).

Some of the unpleasantness for me is about narrative dropped threads, so if something is no longer part of my life I feel bad about that and don't want to look at it, don't really understand why this effect is so strong. Anyway I'm slightly more ok with feeling bad, so I get more of these visual memories back, or something. Seems like a good trade.

  • Empson on 'Missing Dates'. The conceit of the poem 'Missing Dates' - that if you are perfectly tidy you will never get old - is somehow symbolically compelling to me because of this weird gut sense that, as I put it before, "the accreted psychic weight of all the narrative loose ends 'gets you in the end' in some sinister unspecified way". I think the mechanism, according to my gut, is something like that as you gradually fill up with memories, your default responses to them shrink and cramp your ability to respond to the world, and eventually you're so constrained in your movements that you're basically immobile. In the poem this build up of constraints just is aging, and if you're tidy enough you avoid it. Or something.
  • David MacIver's post on memory and yearning