I reading a book the other day by Jonah Lehrer, titled Proust Was A Neuroscientist. It was about how artists have an intuitive sense of things yet to be discovered, quantified or corroborated, which they somehow grasp on an internal level, expressing them through their art. The roster of artists included Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf.
If our understanding of the past is only as good as our last memory, how accurate is our perception?
I was going through the chapter about Marcel Proust, the French author, when I came across this statement: “A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it.”
It referred to Proust’s precocious understanding of how memory is linked to the sense of smell and taste, and how our recollection of past events shifts over time, depending on one’s mood and circumstances at the time of recalling them.
The assertion got me thinking. If our understanding of the past is only as good as our last memory, how accurate is our perception? Surely we lose something in the process. Recording things reduces the distortion of passing things down by word of mouth, true; freezing memories in time, on a piece of paper, on a piece of marble, a wall, a screen, or a digital file helps us capture the moment more accurately. But what about the persons doing the transcribing? How accurate is their memory? How many distortions does their recollection suffer before they save things for posterity?
Based on what we know about the way the mind works, a lot depends on personal disposition, viewpoint, focus and motivation. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “There is properly no history; only biography.”
A Good Story Remains
The issue isn’t new. Philosophers and thinkers have been laboring over the validity of our experiences and the accuracy of our recollection for millennia.
But I had something more specific in mind: the collective consciousness. I wanted to see how memory is affected on the mass level.
The reason? Mass media, social media, the information deluge. With so much going on around us, and with the ability to record, transmit and replay pretty much everything that happens, I wanted to hone in on the key factor that shapes our understanding of what is going on. What are our last, most potent, most lasting memories?
The answer is simple. The most entertaining, most engrossing stories that describe an event what shapes our recollection, day after day, to each their own.
Why? Because they endure.
Let’s take holidays as an example. Say you go on a trip with your spouse and some friends and have an adventure on the very first day. At the end of the day you get together with everyone and go over it, recounting the various events. Everyone remembers things more or less as they happened, with little variation. But as time passes, we remember things differently, emphasizing different parts of the story, omitting other parts, and sometimes making new ones up.
This is how memory works. People share an experience, the facts of which are gradually changed. They distill them down to a story, a captivating narrative, the most appealing versions of which prevail.
In other words, the intriguing and entertaining survives. Truth often doesn’t. You may remember things more accurately than your spouse or friends, but if their version is more appealing — sharper, funnier, edgier — than yours, it stands a better chance of lasting longer, simply because the audience is drawn to it more than they’re drawn to an accurate but dry account.
It varies, of course. If the audience is looking for fact-driven, dry descriptions, then it responds to the dry versions of what happened, disregarding the narratives filled with juicy or flimsy bits, entertaining as they may be. Each audience has a way of embracing different things, depending on what it seeks.
Fact of the matter is, the past is molded through framing and repetition. It never emerges from memory unscathed. “We have to misremember something in order to remember it”, Lehrer says. I’m sure he could have used the term ‘dismember’ instead of ‘misremember’, but that would have been too drastic a way to describe it.
It would have also been more accurate. Dismembering events and rearranging i.e. re-membering them is what memory is about.
Setting The Overall Tone
We have the choice to escape the mainstream funnel and choose the narratives we prefer
There are cases when the choice of narratives is limited. The news, for example, isn’t what one would call open-source material where everyone gets to say their piece. The stories that make their way to the public are approved by publishers, editors, regulatory bodies and committees, all of which have the final say on what gets published and how it’s presented. Thus the audience receives an already filtered, polished, approved narrative.
In open societies, this filtering is not severe or extreme. Censorship is scant, and so is propaganda. People have access to the internet where blogs and forums publish unedited and unscripted information. We have the choice to escape the mainstream funnel and choose the narratives we prefer. Misinformation and disinformation are rife, of course, muddying the waters, but let’s leave that for another article.
Whatever the case, history depends on the audience. The scribes and reporters note things down, providing the last memory, but it’s always up to the audience to ratify it. They get to decide which versions of that memory get to live on.
So the question arises: how does the audience make up its mind on what to keep and what to disregard?
The answer is simple. Like with personal stories, we tend to go for the most accessible, most discernible, easiest to process, easiest to digest pieces. They simplify our options, substituting substance with practicality. Especially now, in this day and age, during the information deluge.
The reason for this simplification process is neither jadedness, nor laziness, nor stupidity, as social critics claim. It’s memory dynamics. People access what happened in the most practical way, opting for the most-easily remembered scenarios. Jadedness, laziness and stupidity are nothing more than byproducts of our constant efforts to keep up and the endless filtering process that comes with it.
In Part 2 I’ll examine where the ultimate last memory of today’s society lies, what shapes people’s overall perspective. I’m also going to explore the role of books, articles, TV, movies, video games, apps and infographics.