In which The Author reflects on some unreliable memoirs
If you haven’t already seen it, at this point I thoroughly recommend watching Michel Gondry’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I expect you’re looking it up on IMDb right now. The fact that it stars Jim Carrey shouldn’t put you off. It’s not the Jim Carrey of Dumb and Dumber, it’s the Jim Carrey of The Truman Show. It’s got a Charlie Kaufman script, and confirms my suspicion that Messrs Gondry and Kaufman have stumbled upon at least as much insight about consciousness as many of the assembled psychologists, philosophers and cognitive scientists working in the field.
The basic premise, of a man paying a company to erase his ex-girlfriend from his memory, is one of the nicest ideas in science fiction for some years. The cinematic realisation of the idea is one of the most terrifying and haunting explorations of the human psyche since the acid novels of the 1960s and 1970s.
And now, back to the blog …
In 1966, the year I was born, a racehorse named Arkle won the Cheltenham Gold Cup for the third time. It was the first time that particular sporting feat had been achieved.
That’s a historical fact. You can look it up online, or in any standard reference work. It’s beyond rational dispute. It’s a pure datum, a piece of Declarative Knowledge. You don’t need to know anything about the conceptual background to it, or apply any reasoning processes to it, or draw any logical inferences from it. If it came up in a pub quiz tomorrow night, I’d be there like a shot with the correct answer. That’s nothing to be proud of.
It’s significant to my life for one reason only.
When I was a young child, I had a wooden rocking horse named Arkle. That isn’t a historical fact. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time that it’s ever been documented. It won’t be peer-reviewed, edited, or published anywhere else. In fact, it’s something I ‘know’ only because there are photographs of me riding it in Mother’s album of my formative years. Even so, Mother has to prompt me every time we look at the photos to ‘recall’ this childhood toy. I smile and nod, simply to reassure her that my happy memories of infancy are still safe and sound.
In truth, I don’t remember it at all.
I’m also reliably informed that when I was young, three generations of us went on holiday en famille to a caravan in Oxwich. At some point during the week, we were playing cricket with Dads, using a red sponge ball. Mams and Mother decided to play a trick on him by substituting a ripe tomato for the ball. Upon impact, the tomato splattered over Dads. Cue hilarity all round.
I don’t remember that incident either. These ‘memories’ of my childhood aren’t my memories. They’ve been implanted in my mind over the years in exactly the same way that I learned my multiplication tables. Every time the photo albums come out, Mother and I go through the same basic sequence of learning reinforcement through sheer repetition.
It probably seems weird, but I can’t remember anything at all about the time when Phil was small. He was born when I was three years and nine months old. It should have made a deep impact on my developing mind, I suppose. Even so, I have absolutely no first-hand knowledge of standing at the window of the maternity ward at Aberdare Hospital, waving to Mother as she held him. I still bear the physical scar from the time that Phil threw a wallpaper scraper across the bedroom and sliced the bridge of my nose. The psychological imprint has long since vanished.
I certainly don’t remember the time my cousin Denise and I danced up and down the passage in our house, singing the theme tune to Top of the Form. I don’t remember Tony and Eirlys Poole coming round, or going to visit Ron Haines and his family living in Glan Road, or the presents we had for Xmas from our grandparents and other relatives. There are numerous photographs of me being held by a succession of total strangers. They have names purely on the grounds that Mother has assigned names to them while rehearsing the narrative of my childhood.
Shouting ‘Aar!’ at Mark (our neighbour opposite, about two or three years older than me) because it was the nearest I could get to saying his actual name, or telling the Man from the Pru that I couldn’t say ‘hello’ to him because I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, might as well be incidents from someone else’s novel. I ‘remember’ them only because I’ve been told that they occurred.
I do remember Miss Morris doing a sort of ‘Simon Says’ thing with us in school one afternoon – hands in the air, hands by your sides, fold your arms, and so forth – until I got bored and decided not to carry on. For that I had to stand at the front of the class for a while. A sign of incipient anarchist tendencies, maybe? My earliest attempt at rejecting the demands of an undemocratic authority figure? Who knows?
I also remember the time I pissed myself in Mrs Evans’s classroom one day, because I was too embarrassed to put my hand up. I can remember some pretty unpleasant incidents from my childhood, so why can’t I remember the stuff which fills the photo albums and which I presumably enjoyed? Surely you’re supposed to repress the nasty bits and consign those to the nightmare zone …
About a fortnight before Xmas we had a comedy hypnotist in the pub. I volunteered to go up and join the group on stage. After a brief talk and a trial exercise, I was selected to ‘go under’ for the duration. I felt myself going under – until a slight distraction from the crowd broke the spell and I didn’t get back into the right frame of mind. I played along for a while, but I couldn’t keep a straight face and confessed to acting for the whole time I was on the stage.
Over the years I’ve tried all sorts of tapes and CDs and meditation techniques to try and cure my insomnia. They work for the first few days before I go back to Square One. I just don’t go deeply enough into the mental state required for them to have a lasting effect. Even my best dreams seem to occur when I’m in a state of semi-wakefulness (maybe it’s Lucid Dreaming, maybe it isn’t!) rather than totally out for the count.
My friend Josie is doing her PhD in Psychology, and working on symbolism in dreams. She asked me if I’d be interested in taking part. I told her I would have been, but I don’t remember them in enough detail for my diaries to be of any use in her research. If I can’t even remember dreams from a couple of hours before, it would seem that any idea of recalling these childhood memories under hypnosis would be doomed to failure.
Anyway, I was thinking about this yesterday, listening to a Radio 2 item about neuroscience research at Berkeley University.¹ Experimenters have been able to translate the electrical signals of the temporal lobe into speech via computers. It’s still in its very rudimentary stages, but one caller raised the possibility of downloading one’s entire memories into a computer at some future time.
Timothy Leary, in his last book A Design For Dying (co-authored with R. U. Sirius, HarperCollins, 1997) had already explored this idea. Jeremy Vine made an interesting observation in this respect: How much room would one person’s memories occupy? Gigabytes? Terabytes? Petabytes? Exabytes? Whatever comes next?
More importantly – in the light of what I’ve just been writing about – how many of those ‘memories’ would be directly attributable to that person? How do you sift the Procedural Knowledge from the merely Declarative? Procedural Knowledge is the sort that one acquires for oneself: it fits around a logical framework; it’s amenable to application in similar situations; it can be conceptually altered to suit new situations; it can be modified, rebuilt, and manipulated, like a symbolic Lego set, and therefore contributes to one’s intelligence.
Surely those are the memories you can’t implant. Just reading in a reference book that Cardiff is the capital city of Wales (Declarative Knowledge) is no substitute for working there for many years and seeing the place at first hand, meeting its people, enjoying the shops, knowing the best pubs to go to, and avoiding the places to avoid at all cost (Procedural Knowledge). By the same token, is just being told that I once had a rocking horse named Arkle a substitute for childhood memories of fun times spent astride its back?
Albert Einstein was famous for never knowing his own telephone number. His justification was that he never bothered to remember anything which he could look up. That left his brain free to do more thinking.
It’s an interesting theory. It would be interesting to dump all the once-useful stuff I’ve learned over years in the book trade – authors of long out-of-print books, addresses of suppliers with whom I’ll never have to deal again, names of reps I’ll never see again – and make room for useful new information.
Let’s be honest, knowing that Biblios Distribution handled Skin Two magazine in the days when Robin House carried the Amalgamated Book Services list isn’t going to make one iota of difference to the transmission of my genes into the next generation.
Knowing how to effortlessly and effectively disable the knife-wielding junkie in the alley beside the Pickled Pepper, without leaving any trace evidence, could make a hell of a difference.
¹ Pasley B. N. , David S. V. , Mesgarani N. , Flinker A. , Shamma S. A. , et al. 2012. ‘Reconstructing Speech from Human Auditory Cortex’ in PLoS Biol 10(1): e1001251. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001251