Reconstructing Memory (11/26/12)
Safeguarding the Self
It’s true – you’re not you. At least not what you think.
We slide through life consumed and propelled by memory. We know what we know, saw what we saw.
Except recent research demonstrates that memory is always changed every time it is retrieved – whether you consciously remember it or not.
Every time you remember something you put it “back” differently. The physicochemical trace is changed, edited. The place it goes back to is changed, also.
It’s a different story than what it was.
Long term studies of memory accords with this. Not only can memory become rapidly changed by context – including what questions you’re asked and the reactions to how you respond. “Hard” memories also change.
Dan Offer asked 16 year olds if there were beaten by their parents. Ninety percent said yes.
Thirty years later, thirty percent said yes – to the same question.
Ask what people what occurred at the scene of a crime and they may not describe the same event – even when they are “impartial” bystanders.
Everything is transmuted through continually changing memory processes.
So how do we reconcile constantly changing memory with our sense that we’re the same people from week to week and year to year?
That depends on which illusions you prefer.
Machines and Morals
If a computer memory starts making “mistakes”, putting out bits of information different than the ones we put in ourselves, we consider it “corrupted.” The machine, unconsciously, has committed a moral lapse.
If our memories are different from others who witnessed the same events, we may be called “liars.” Humans are fascinated with lying and cheating. Much of our social solidarity resides in a commonly held vision of “values” or “the truth.”
So if memory constantly changes – and can clearly be manipulated by context and events afterward – does that make us all potential, unwitting sociopaths? And if we are unaware that we are lying to ourselves, are sociopaths who naturally remake their memories truly “bad people”?
That, too, depends.
Genetics and Survival
Genetic systems go through cartwheels to get things right. Most mutations are “bad” – they lead to “errors” of physiology that make the kind of mistakes that get the organism (you) or your offspring (kids and the family) more likely to leave the earth quickly.
So there’s massive biological machinery to get the answers the same – every time.
There must be. Attacks on DNA are frequent and constant. The checks and balances that have been built keep up a remarkably effective copying system.
So when it comes to DNA, you are who you are from birth on – more or less.
But now there is the “messy” realm of epigenetics. The stuff that controls gene expression – the proteins and information systems that control the controls – can change – a lot.
And they can express these changes through future generations. Not only is this “Lamarckianism” violating the idea of genes representing the continuing information template of living things – it even violates some Darwinian principles.
Yet from the standpoint of the organism – or the species – epigenetics may not be such a bad thing.
Being able to adjust continually – including your gene controls – may confer many advantages.
But it may be trouble for theologians and moralists. For we know that memory is constantly manipulated and manipulated. So is gene expression.
What is left to cling to? What remains unchanging, a rock in the foaming sea?
Welcoming the Self
Most humans describe a powerful sense of identity. I’m Harry, not Sally. I grew up in Bensonhurst. I like hang gliding, not horror movies.
Einstein knew better. He talked about the “optical illusion” of individuality.
But we will defend our individual identities unto the death.
There are many reasons for this. In part, it comes from competing biological demands.
Societies operate through great complexity. There are always moral codes – religious, legal, and other. There are rules.
Recognizing that memories – even human genetic expression – changes second by second represents a major problem for stability.
So the self comes to the rescue. That we go from helpless infancy to toothless elderliness is really manageable if an abiding, stable self has been along all the way.
This wondrous mental superstructure and interior virtual reality provides us many events and pleasures. We are always ourselves. We have histories. We know what’s right and wrong. We can interact with others and expect their behavior to be as consistent as ours – within bounds of course.
We know where we’re coming from. We think we know we’re where going.
It’s a great, pleasant, powerful, amazing illusion.
The Future of an Illusion
Humans certainly have individual identities, but those identities change. What we wanted when we were four was not what we cared about when fourteen. We chalk that up to age and development.
But the truth is more subtle. Our information systems are constantly changing, updating, morphing, mutating. Our memories change, our genes change.
Yet we keep telling ourselves we are the same.
Illusions like selfhood can allow us to be creative, to write, to romance distant lovers and reimagine the universe.
But they can give us a false sense of who we are – making us think we change a lot less than we really do.
Or that we continue to possess that capacity for change throughout our lives.
Which we do.
So it will prove difficult for people to accept this alternative but more accurate reality –
That they are never the same
That they are constantly remade and rebuilt
That the information that makes a human being changes continually with the environment in which we live
That we are always reinvented and renewed
In time we may understand these processes sufficiently to control them and manipulate them.
Just like our self manipulates our memories, our actions, and our beliefs – creating an “immutable” superstructure that is always mutable.
And when we give up the illusion of constant individual stability we’ll be able to enjoy the universe around us more, recognizing the changes and changing with them.
Losing some of our “selves” will allow us to more authentically recognize who we are and where we came from.
And show us where we can go.
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