Anthony Luebbert on A. R. Luria

A Little Essay About a Lack of Memory

1. Futurists predict that eventually the human mind will be emulated and the contents of a brain could be uploaded onto, well, a hard drive perhaps. Or something that resembles a hard drive, but does not work the way one does now since it will incorporate forgetting. These units will be modeled on the way our brains store memories, with synapses strengthening or weakening through use or disuse. The ability to recall could be perfect with a brain on a hard drive. Why engineer forgetting?

2. I was born in 1978. My first memory comes within the following two years and eight months. There isn't much that I am still holding onto from then, only scraps: a bathtub faucet, a kitchen counter, and cupcakes which I wanted quite terribly.

3. What do I remember after that? Everything minus ninety percent. And that is probably generous since so much passes by. What do I remember from yesterday, for example? That I saw cute girls at the grocery, that I worked, and that I dreamed of dead bodies of American soldiers from the South killed in the Civil War that had been shrunk down to two-inches high and displayed in the North as curios. The girls and the work will fade by tonight. The dream will be gone within a month.

4. I have this quote from Sylvia Plath's journals on the permanent sidebar on my blog, "I catch up: each night, now, I must capture one taste, one touch, one vision from the ruck of the day's garbage. How all this life would vanish, evaporate, if I didn't clutch at it, cling to it, while I still remember some twinge or glory."

5. For thirty years, the Russian psychologist A.R. Luria studied a man with near-perfect recall. He wrote a book about him called The Mind of a Mnemonist. The mnemonist could memorize a blackboard full of numbers and then repeat them back when asked fifteen years later. He had memories from before he was twelve-months old of his mother and father and how he felt about them. He didn't have to work at remembering like ordinary people do. Instead, he had to work to forget, a task he found nearly impossible. Things he didn't need to have memorized—telephone numbers and street addresses, for example—he tried to forget by writing them down so there would be no need to remember them. This wasn't successful since he remembered the act of writing the information, thus retaining it.

6. The mnemonist tried burning mental images of things he wanted to forget. He imagined himself placing them into a fire but he could still see the scorched remnants of the information in the ashes.

7. The mnemonist apparently could store experiences wholesale. He said he would look at a clock sometimes and a half an hour later he would still be looking at the same clock, except to him the clock's hands hadn't moved and time hadn't passed in the typical sense. His brain held that very moment so perfectly that he could exist in it without the changing reality interrupting. ("How boring to be perfect," one of David Foster Wallace's characters said.) The mnemonist's mental life was so convincing to him that it could affect his physical life as well. If he imagined a piece of ice in one hand and his other touching a stove's burner, the temperature of the skin on both hands would change accordingly. Luria measured the changes with a surface thermometer and attested to this occurrence.

8. The mnemonist never made great plans and didn't achieve greatness in his life, but why would he when he could recreate in his mind everything he might ever want?

9. Most of us can't perfectly recreate the feeling of our favorite day. Perhaps we can recall the way our lover smells when we are absent from her or him and picture his or her face, but the totality is impossible. Some people spend some time dwelling in the parts of past events that they can recreate perfectly—by listening repeatedly to songs that played at key periods, perhaps. Happiness is destroyed by not being able to recreate the past or to have again what has been lost.

10. The individual is propelled by lack, be it a deficit of love, wealth, or esteem.

11. Kim Peek, the megasavant who was the basis for Dustin Hoffman's role in the movie Rain Man, had near-perfect recall and virtually no sexual desire. Our genes need our desires to be satisfied by action and not merely by reminiscing. The genes for perfect memory, therefore, are seldom passed on.

12. In the misremembered and the forgotten there arises the new. The brain has fading memories and a hard drive does not. A hard drive works so that the data is either there or it isn't. A file cannot be half-remembered by a hard drive, only lost or corrupted. The human brain works imperfectly compared to them or any other information storage device like a a piece of paper or DNA. Part of this is because no human experience can be saved perfectly, even with all the storage space in the world—there is simply too much information from the senses. When I retrieve memories of my sister as a child, it's likely that I'll insert an image of her that comes from photographs of her. Sometimes she'll look like her adult self. The memory will bend each time I bring it up. Imagine how it was before photographs and even the likenesses of the past were lost.

13. If everything could be perfectly remembered, there would be no reason for us to be here. We would be different creatures entirely, ones that would fade into the landscape like wallpaper. An apple remembered perfectly is just the apple itself. Man's invention is the idea of the apple. The reduction.

14. When I was young, my parents would take me to this slightly older kid's house. I was four or five. The kid's name was Robbie. He was half-deaf, or maybe all-deaf, and when he tried to talk it sounded like a goose. I didn't like him, but when we went there my parents threw me in the backyard with him while they talked to his parents in the house. I'd try to go into the house with them, but my mom would put me out again. "Go play with Robbie," she'd say. But Robbie didn't play like other children played. He'd bite me and slap me and kick me, all the while making goose noises, sometimes soft grumbly ones, sometimes loud honking ones. One time, when I ran inside and my mom chased me out again, she said, "Go out with your brother. Go. Go." I'm certain that's what she said. Brother. I only saw Robbie one more time after that.

15. In my memory, Robbie looks like me. He shares my youthful blonde hair and blue eyes. My face too, the same chin and nose, although he has sterner eyebrows that point down in a perpetual scowl. I don't know if this is how he actually looked. I asked my mom about him after I finished school—I thought by then she might be ready to tell me about this brother whom I wondered about for years—, but she said she didn't remember any such visits or any half-deaf boys. I don't talk to my father, so I haven't asked him. I have no way to "look up" those events. There's no book or website that might be storing the details except for the book of memories. I don't even know which city we were in. We traveled a ways from our home through the country, past windmills and oil pumps, to get to Robbie's house.

16. If something isn't remembered, did it really happen? If something is remembered, and there is no evidence...

17. Our society demands information in the form of schemas, methodologies, and histories. It is all about how to sustain and recreate society itself, since it is renewed entirely every 5 or 6 generations. The information that is judged to be correct is passed on and preserved. That which is incorrect or surpassed is not retained in a meaningful way. The editors of Wikipedia clear away the eccentricities like the waves erode away the rocky crags. If I added Anthony Luebbert to Wikipedia today, my entry would be deleted as "unremarkable." (The entry would then show up in the Deletionpedia, a web site for deleted Wikipedia articles.) If I added incorrect or irrelevant information to an entry, another user would delete the additions. Nature works similarly: Human breeding now reaches outside of small geographic circles and this smooths out genetic faults and oddities. Blue eyes, originally a mutation, are quickly disappearing in favor of the genetically natural brown.

18. Today I read an article in The New Yorker by Jonathan Franzen. In it he said, "The most interesting aspect of the novel's origin may be the evolution of English culture's answers to the question of verisimilitude: should a strange story be accepted as true because it is strange, or should its strangeness be taken as proof that it is false."

19. Information is a tyrant. It says only "Yes" or "No", "0" or "1". There is no negotiation or middle ground. You cannot tell your DNA to give you one blue eye and one brown eye.

20. But we as individuals resist. We think abstractly to make up for the deficiencies of our minds. Since we cannot remember an apple entirely, we create a stand-in for the apple. If we remembered everything perfectly, we would be nothing but information machines. For us, there is, with "Yes" and "No", "Maybe," "Perhaps," "But," and "Kind of." From this springs art and language, both of which convey much more than information. This is why it took over five years of research and over three million dollars of hardware for IBM to create Watson, a computer that could beat a human at Jeopardy, a game show that tests knowledge through the use of puns and turns of phrase, both features of natural language. The curse of forgetting is our blessing and from whence our greatness springs. Out of the void, we create.