Ingeborg van Teeseling

Random access memory: Our brain always remembers to forget

The concept of memory in relation to the brain is not a universal ruling. In fact, it excels in erasing the things it doesn’t care for.

 

 

For some reason, I suddenly started thinking about the brain this week. How it works, how it distorts things, how it makes us who we are. There were a couple of loosely-related reasons for that. First of all, Trump, of course. A few days ago, the Washington Post calculated that the President of the United States had reached a milestone: he had told 10,000 false and misleading claims (previously called lies) during the time of his tenure. There were some days, the newspaper wrote, that he managed to be dishonest 23 times. And he had now clocked up 21 what-they-called “Bottomless Pinocchios”: fabrications that he repeated more than 20 times. Some of them, or actually, most of them, were easily checked. Like the claim that his father was born in Germany, for instance, or that the Democrats support the killing of healthy babies. Nevertheless, he put them out there regardless, and he didn’t seem to mind that people would find out that he was telling porkies. That made me think. As children we are all taught that lying is bad, but that if you do it, only do it if you can get away with it. The fact that Trump doesn’t mind being found out…does that say something about his brain? Does it work differently from ours, and if it does, does that mean that his sense of self is different too?

I made that connection, because I was reading a book. It was written by a British doctor, Jules Montague, and is called Lost and Found – Memory, Identity and Who We Become When We’re No Longer Ourselves. Of course, her first story was about dementia, the quintessential moment where we lose track of our brain. One of the biggest problems with dementia is that sufferers slowly mislay their memories. And that is what Montague’s book was asking: when we lose our sense of what has happened to us in the past, do we also lose ourselves in the present and the future? Identity, she writes, is a complicated thing. It consists, first and foremost, of what we remember of ourselves and the stories we have made of those memories. Our memories teach us who we are: somebody who is scared of dogs, because they were bitten when they were six. Somebody likes tall men, because their beloved father was a tall man. Somebody got great grades in high school, so is smart and should be paid good money in a job with status. We—our essence, our core, our self—is located in our memories. You could say we are our memories. So what happens if they disappear? Is it true, as Harvard Professor Dan Brock wrote, that “the severely demented” “lack personhood”, because without memory, “personal identity” has been destroyed?


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Montague complicates that question by explaining a few other things about what makes us us. She says that the brain is most of all a forgetting machine, that is really good at filtering out the stuff it doesn’t want. Although we’ve got plenty of space on the hard drive, we chose to forget much more than we remember. Especially in childhood, we are brilliant at it. It is almost impossible to have memories that go back before we were three, and usually there are only fragments from between the ages of three and seven. That doesn’t mean, of course, that what happened to us at five isn’t part of who we are. We just can’t remember. Another fascinating thing is that we are very good at making up stuff. In the 1990s, two American psychologists, Elizabeth Loftus and Jacqueline Pickrell, did an experiment where they implanted false memories into people. It worked a treat. In their trial and similar ones later on, about 70% of the people was afterwards convinced of the real-ness of the memory. Even if they were told they had committed a crime, they turned that into something they remembered. Although it had, of course, never really happened. A third problem is that we are not the only people turning the memories into stories. Others around us help us with that. We all have family members or friends who dispute our memories, and in doing so rewrite them for us. And we do that ourselves, too. Montague says that memories are made in the telling, not in the experience. When we remember a moment, she writes, we are not really remembering the moment, but the last time we remembered it. “Retrieving what you recalled before and infusing that memory with the experiences and perceptions you’ve gathered since then. With remembering, there is rebuilding. And that is the thing about memory: it’s a home constantly under reconstruction, not a video playing on a loop.”

Obviously, that means that our memories, the things we think are true and make us us, are highly changeable. That is great news for people with trauma, because it gives therapists a way to modify the horror, or the horrible story that the trauma has turned into over time. It is also great for the 47 million Alzheimer’s patients in the world (one new case every 3.2 seconds!), once we understand that we are much more than just our memories. Then, maybe, we can start treating them less in a way that “infantilises, intimidates, stigmatises and objectifies” and more like individuals, human beings with a soul. It can also tell us something about a person like Donald Trump. Montague’s book is full of people who have made up most of their lives. They pretend to have been heroes under fire, survivors of plane crashes, fighters in wars they were never in. Because we are what we tell ourselves we are, these people actually believe those things. Not that long ago, there was the LNP candidate for the seat of Longman in Queensland, who claimed to have earned a prestigious medal for serving in the ADF. Unfortunately, that was a porkie that earned him the ire of the RSL and people who really served in wars. It also didn’t endear him to the voters, who chose to elect somebody else. Maybe that is where we differ from the Americans: they don’t seem to mind a leader whose grey matter makes up all manner of stuff. To us, that is still called lying. Maybe to them it is just part of the power of the brain?

 

Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website www.australia-explained.com.au, and runs www.lifebooks.com.au, telling people's life stories.

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