On memory and ...errr... other things.
I just finished reading a marvelous book by Julian Barnes, the 2011 Booker Prize winning novella, The Sense of an Ending. After the rather disappointing experiences of previous Booker books such as Life of Pi, White Tiger and Wolf Hall, I did not have much expectations on this one. But wasn't I pleasantly surprised?
Not only was this an incredibly funny and smart book but also it raised some deep questions about the nature of memory and its loopholes.
When I was small, my grandmother used to tell me that an elephant could remember everything right from its birth. Back then, this did not seem like a great skill to have. Why would you want to remember all the mundane things that happen every day in your life? Also, I expected that I would always remember the important moments of my own life, which made my human mind far more superior than that of the elephant. Now I do not know whether the Elephant's memory hypothesis is correct or not, but I definitely know that my hypothesis about the human mind is wrong.
The functioning of the human memory is a great frontier of science which is yet to be fully scaled. While scientists come up with numerous theories and hypotheses, each one more finer than the last, we still do not fully understand how the human memory works.
As a student and now an engineer of Computer Architecture, I fancied myself with the idea that the human memory was a really advanced version of the D-RAM in computers. A place where data could be stored and be retrieved later on when required, akin to the read and write operation of computers. The loss of memory that accompanies old age could be because the memory cells holding those datums could have gotten corrupted or the location in memory where the address book of the memory cells is located could have gotten corrupted. The latter idea appeared particularly ingenious to me as it accounted for many of my own experiences where it would have seemed like I had forgotten something, but later on when I was doing something completely irrelevant, BAM! the memory would come back to me! In this way I used to come up with some of my own ideas to further solidify this DRAM-like theory for the human mind.
But Julian Barnes killed my theory! In a short book of 140 pages, he not only demonstrated the vulnerabilities of the human memory but also showed its uglier, manipulative self. I realized the fundamental concept that human memory = events + emotional reaction. Quite often, depending on the associated emotional reaction, the mind alters the sequence of events. When I look back at some of the highlight moments of my life, I must admit that I do not remember the environment, the sounds, the smells or the looks on people's faces. I do not remember if it was a rainy day or a hot day. All I do remember is this strong sense of triumph or happiness and upon this pole the rest of the tent is built. I imagine people cheering, I imagine an air-conditioned auditorium and I imagine a smiling chief guest. These memories are compromised, they may even be mainly untrue, but within a small framework of what-happened and when-it-happened and using my emotional reaction as the yardstick, the human mind deconstructs the rest of the memory. Could it be a really advanced encryption-decryption algorithm? That is a question for scientists and neural doctors.
Nonetheless, this just goes on to show how much we still do not know about something that we take for granted everyday.