Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Memory Is a Problem: Perfume, "Our Song," and the Shifting Sands of Embedded Narratives


Jimi Hendrix. Voodoo Chile. Is it heresy to say that this song does nothing for me? Sure, I understand the greatness, the individual talent, the spiraling pass that makes it all the way to the endzone of a bliss that has appropriated and/or bowdlerized Romanticism all over it.

I'm only listening to the recording because I have no choice. I'm in a gritty, Bohemian restaurant that has a raw veggie wrap I like.

Long term memory is not static. Even autobiographical memory is dynamic, subject to change. I'm not sure if that means that one's ability to recall is variable, or if the memories themselves are variable.

Okay. I sort of like "All Along the Watchtower" and "Hey Joe." I have no idea what they're about. To me, Jimi Hendrix died when he was about 50. Of course he didn't. He was 27. But, his work has been around so long, it seems as though he's alive -- along with his music. I guess he'd be around 70 if he were alive today, perhaps as boring "pillar of the financial community" as Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger have become.

I'm intrigued. The implications of a protean, constantly morphing memory are fascinating.

Jimi Hendrix has now moved into "Easy Rider." I can't remember who did this song. I don't much care for it.

I'm at a table next to a window partially covered by a poster advertising a New Year's celebration. Two men have just walked by -- one is pushing a shopping cart with clothing and other possessions. They both have long brown beards. No gray. Does that mean they're in their 20s or 30s? For some reason, I always think of the homeless as being old, but the truth is, they're generally not.

I remember having contact with homeless in Oklahoma City. The parking lot I used was next to a detox center, and men would regularly ask for a dollar or sometimes odd amounts -- 15 cents. In New York City, the panhandlers were not homeless, nor were they in Baku or in St. Petersburg, Russia. Instead, they seemed a bit like carnies -- and very well rehearsed and organized.

One Sunday morning two years into the Iraq war, while visiting friends in Philadelphia, I came across a ragged young man who was leaning against a brick wall somewhere off Rittenhouse Square. For some reason, I felt compelled to give him a ten-dollar bill. I think I was influenced by my time in Azerbaijan -- it was fairly normal for people to stop and give money to people who were on the street corners who asked for help. I respect the generosity of the individuals who give out individual charity. There's something about the panhandlers here in Tulsa, though, that takes me aback. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that some are given to saying aggressive things, and to demand a cigarette.

Can I trust any of my memories?

I believe I can. But, one has to say that it could be that emotional connections to the memory could mediate it.

Some sort of seventies anthem is blaring across the speakers. It is equally repellant. Why do I dislike "Classic Rock"? Does it have to do with the associated memories?

Most people would say so. The would claim that the popularity of "greatest hits" compilations has to do with the fact that they trigger memories of one's pleasant times, formative years. Music is like perfume, in their eyes. It triggers deep memories that you can't expunge, even if you want to. So, what you do is find the music that has the most pleasant cluster of associative and associated memories and then you replay, replay, replay.

Good idea?

If memories are pliable and/or shape-shifting, doesn't it follow that every time you hear a song in a new context, the experience of listening to the song is mediated? Further, does it not follow that the emotional impact would also change? Then, your memory goes awry.

Concrete example: If I first listened to Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child" as a child in conjunction with confusing, rather menacing images and energies, would that always be with me? Would my experience change if I started to associate the song with exciting times in the summer -- sitting outside eating dinner with friends, drinking coffee at a bohemian java bar?

Another song, some sort of ditty that is a clear borrowing from an Irish folk tune: "hello mr blue sky -- welcome to the human race." Elton John admitted to having raided the Methodist hymnal for chord progressions and even melodies.

Memory turns into a self-delusion machine if we're not careful.

So, if we have associated memories -- what are they associated with? The updated melody? The original? The variations that came later?

Rolling Stones: Honky Tonk Woman. My memories associated with this song are of my older cousin from Vermont who came to spend a summer with us in Oklahoma. In my view, her presence was quite unwelcome. She occupied my bedroom. Her main goal was to go back bronzed and glamorous. This was before tanning beds -- and -- before she had experienced anything but a Northern sun oon her white, freckled hide.

The Oklahoma August sun did quick work of her, and when I think of her, I think of her listening to the Rolling Stones, then baking in the backyard on my mom's favorite chaise longue. Later, she burned to a crisp, or at least a blistering ball of pain. Second-degree burns. I felt nothing but schadenfreude at the time (I was 6 years old). Later, I got mine -- not realizing why the beaches of the Yucatan peninsula were empty at noon in March during Spring Break. I, a 16-year-old who should have known better, got so sunburned the tops of my toes peeled.

Memory is fallible. That's been demonstrated over and over again. It is remarkably easy to induce false memories as well. Why do I think I'm immune to it?

Perhaps "greatest hits" and perfume are reassuring simply because we rely on them as memory markers. They trigger memories -- authentic ones, we suppose -- and we rely on them to access a kind of "write-protected" part of our brains.

But, apparently, nothing is "write-protected" and your memories can be altered without any sort of physiological issue. So, there is nothing to say that my memories of my cousin and her taste for the Rolling Stones and the popular television shows of the day that featured teenagers in go-go boots and "mod" Herman's Hermits and the like have not been effaced or attenuated by my emotional need for a certain narrative to be associated with those days or times.

This seems fairly straightforward.

What is not so straight-forward is how I'm supposed to move forward in a world where everything is fluid and where everything reinvents itself, and not necessarily in a way that benefits me.

The other day, I was listening to a program on the radio -- the name of show was something like "Radio Lab" (see how I distrust my memory for my invented schema and the labels and short-hand retrieval, but I trust my memory implicitly for the narrative). It was the story of a woman who dated a man with face-recognition disorder. Coincidentally, the week before, there was a story about a professor who had face recognition disorder. They could not remember nor could they recognize faces. They would have intense difficulty in life because everyone was, in essence, a stranger to them. I suppose the pattern recognition part of their brains were sadly compromised.

I had a few questions for them. Could they read maps? Could they recognize where they were on a map? If face recognition disorder was anything like the problems I had in field camp trying to see in 3D with stereo pairs -- well, I can understand the frustration. When it came to verbal recognition / description of lithologies, I was completely on top of it. To me, geology was a language and a discourse of explanation. My brain is comfortable with that. My brain is not comfortable with making my vision go to 3D and/or contorting spatial relationships in order to make some sort of visual pattern. My brain is all about process analysis and language. I'm not saying that I can't recognize visual patterns, it's just that I think of the maps we were supposed to use back in the 80s required too much visual extrapolation. For me, it was like using a slide rule rather than a calculator; or, better yet, using an abacus instead of a computer.

I'm acting as though the most important aspect of memory is autobiographical memory, and I have to say that I'm uncomfortable with that thought.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of memory for me has to do with working memory - the place where short term memory and long-term memory have contact. How much of working memory is impacted by the limbic system -- raw, unmediated urge -- fight, flight, fornicate, feed. And, how much of working memory is affected by desire?

I have a feeling that desire plays a very disturbing role in the function of the brain, particularly when it comes to the retrieval of long term memories, and also the way that connections are made between prior knowledge, experience, and schema. I have a feeling that desire can re-route memories and make false priorities, which is to say that it make certain memories rise to the top, while leaving others to hover along the bottom along with the other catfish.

I also suspect that if one does not learn to discipline one's own desire, one is fated to be stuck in fantasy mode-- and eventually, one's memories will be only accessible through one well-trodden and very boring working memory road -- and you'll end up remembering only those things that make you feel good.

Hmmm -- does that sound like anyone you know?

I have a friend who has a favorite refrain -- everything was better in the 50s. He was born in 1949, so I really question what sorts of authentic memories he has. He claims to have a very in-depth recall of the economic downturn of 1958 (or one of those years). I do not doubt him; what I see is a convergence of belief, desire, and emotional conflict (a recognized state of innocence mixed with an anger at the loss of innocence). So, in the end, what is emitted, with clocklike precision, is a rant about how wonderful and innocent those times were, yet how disappointing and hard -- but the narrative that emerges from that uncomfortable juxtaposition is one that he invariably blends with a narrative of the Pilgrim's first winter, how honorable, pure, and heroic they were. I start to think how ultimately sacrificial memory and consciousness itself are.

And, well, while he never says it straight out in that way, but I will.

Memory and consciousness are sacrificial.

So, here I am -- writing this, surrounded again by music, but I'm in a different location -- one that is warm in the way that an Art Deco boutique hotel can be warm. You feel transported back to a time when you can feel comforted by the solid clink of gold in your pocket and oil under your feet.

The music is different. Karen Carpenter is singing "Merry Christmas, Darling" in a way that brings tears to one's eyes-- it's intimate and sentimental -- what her contemporaries would have called "square" --

and, well, being the "square" person that I am - (emotional and idealistic in a way that seeks approval from authority figures, rather than rejecting the approval of authority figures) -- I'm moved. I immediately think of my mother, and I'm sad that I can't call her and talk to her.

Perhaps I will, even though she's not in a place where she can easily answer.

How many people dial up and talk to their dear, departed mothers?

Ah, yes. I'm starting to go down that road of memory mediated by desire.

I'm not sure I'm brave enough right now for that journey. So, I'll stay on the surface and remind myself how much I dislike the "Classic Rock" stations and the way that people cluster songs around certain time markers.