Monday, December 4, 2017

Conjuring Up Memory and Imagination

Do you remember your past, and if so, how do you remember it? Can you smell the cookies baking, or see the flies buzzing on the manure? Do you hear the voices of people who are long gone or feel your mother's touch as she fed you your oatmeal or soup before you were allowed to wield a spoon? Can you remember word for word an entire conversation that happened decades ago? And even if you don't actually remember, can you dig deeper into something that happened a long time ago and bring back dormant memories? Is it like re-watching an old episode of a favorite TV show, which you had forgotten all about, but now recall vividly?

My grandmother Klara, myself, and my grandfather Benzion Katz

Not all people have that kind of memory. Some can know things from the past, the same way we know historical facts, without having access to an image or a sound or a sequence of events that led to the conclusions that were drawn from the experience. Without access to the life event that led to a particular belief, it is not even possible to go back and reassess our conclusions.

Today, I posted an old memory of an interaction with my grandfather many years ago.

Without an episodic memory, I could still have told you about how old I was when I started reading, or where I learned English, but I could not have described the vivid experience of knowing how to read and being told not to read out loud what was clearly written on the page. I could not have remembered the pointer, or my grandfather's voice.

Today I came across an article about how some people can't see pictures in their imagination.  As a result, they might not enjoy reading fiction, and they might not be able to visualize objects at will. But I think this is not strictly an issue of visualizing. I think some people cannot re-experience any sensory memories in the sequence in which they happened. They can remember what an apple looks and tastes like well enough to recognize an apple the next time they see it, but they have no memories of specific apples, and how they felt and tasted, and who gave them those apples.

I know there are some people who enjoy nonfiction, because they feel it is factual and that they gain knowledge from it, but they get nothing whatever out of fiction. If the facts in the books are all made up, why even bother to memorize them, they think. But we don't set out to memorize fiction. The whole point is to experience it as raw events in the making. Then we are free to draw our own conclusions. We don't have to agree with the narrator, who may or may not be reliable

While it's true that nonfiction has an authoritative voice, it often presents us with fewer facts from which we may draw our own conclusions. Every news source is biased, and unless we learn to read between the lines, accounting for the idiosyncrasies of the unreliable narrator, then we are stuck with all our thinking done for us by somebody else.

I have never liked that. That's why I am not going to sit around watching the news, whether the source is CNN or Fox. I would much rather ferret out the truth for myself, by paying attention to the tell-tale facts that show up in my peripheral vision while I am experiencing life. And since I have great episodic memory, I can replay old episodes in my mind's eye years after they happened, until I can get a detail that escaped me before to come into focus.

The virtue of Vacuum County is that we can experience the story from multiple points of view. All of them are biased, but together they help us to build a consistent image of the truth that each narrator cannot help but also share. All people lie. But all people also tell the truth, if you know how to listen. Vacuum County is good training. Listen to Kelly  Clear tell you the story, and close your eyes to see what images your mind conjures up.


  1. I have had episodic memories before when I started recalling something that happened years ago in vivid detail, and then I realized I was started to rewatch the event in my mind. Recently talking to my German friend he mentions the word head cinema, and I think this German term (Kopfkino), where you start imagining either pleasant or troubling ideas in your mind like a show. I think this concept can also be applied to our own memories where we envision these as these happen, but perhaps we find comfort or solace in revisit our memories in a more vivid way than simply stating the facts about what happened. Well I do, anyway.

    1. I like the term Kopfkino. Glad you can do that, too. I can't imagine not being able to.