Thursday, January 01, 2004

Pencils Down

Reading the Autumn 2003 issue of "The American Scholar" is how I ended one year and began another. For the most part, this marks an auspicious closure and start. An avowed cat person, I still laughed out loud at the most engrossing story I've ever read about a canine. (Andrew Hudgins' "Exploding the Dog"). I also squirmed through one of the more exploitative, self-aggrandizing stories I've ever seen on prison writing programs. ("The Writing Class," by an author whom I won't incriminate here. His ego shouldn't surprise me; in his previous work, I've just better tolerated it.)

This morning I read Ellen Ullman's, "Memory and Megabytes," a surprisingly non-clichéd reflection on computer upgrades and the vagaries of human memory. Ullman cites NYU researchers Karim Hader and Glen Schafe and their desire to understand "how [human brains] get a memory out of storage, think about it now, [and] then put it back."

As Ullman writes, "What Nader and Schafe discovered ... was that the brain is not a file cabinet. There is no 'back.' It is a network of neural connections constantly being strengthened, weakened, broken, and formed, and each time we recall something, the researchers found, the connections become labile again. We make new associations, abandon old ones. We refit the memory into the web of all that has happened to us since we last called the thought to mind. And what we then store 'back,'—the definitive-seeming 'I remember it happened such like this'—is not the original incident, not even the last memory we had of it, but the product of a teeming plasmatic event, whole portions of the brain rearranged and reconnected: an enlightened but temporary judgment on the meaning of experience."

Thus, if the current research is correct, the only human memories that endure, unaltered, are those memories that we never, ever access.

Ullman weighs this fact as she contemplates dumping the full contents of an older laptop into the expansive memory storage space of her new machine. The older machine carries emotion-laden documents and scars she might rather forget, but obviously, in the digital world of her new laptop, these cannot be buried in a file marked "basement" or "attic." How alarming to have one's fresh start marred by an accidental click of the mouse, by which that which one had deliberately repressed "all pops out at you: fresh, unyellowed, cruelly unchanged."

And so Ullman comes to her epiphany on the supposed weakness of human brains: "...I realized it is the fact that memory changes that allows us to have something called memory in the first place. If we could not continuously reinterpret the past—could not turn experience over and over, and so interview it with hope and unknowing—memory would be a tyranny. It would be unbearable, a torture, a bad recurring dream. Like data spinning away on a disk: forever the same, the same, the same."

Welcome, 2004. Now we're at liberty to revise 2003.


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