by Glen Brown
Last night, CBC's Ideas episode was called, "Hit Delete" and was exploring the topic of brain research related to human memory, especially around PTSD. Françoise Baylis, a bio-ethicist from Dalhousie said, "I don't think of memories as a biological collection. I think of memories as a collection of stories that make me." She says that a memory in my mind is not something like a separate object sitting on a shelf somewhere all by itself. Rather, a memory is intricately intertwined with a thousand other bits of information our mind has stored about us, about our life, about other people and what they have said about us, our beliefs. Everything that makes up a memory in my mind is part of me. It's not there by accident. My mind has stored it and framed it somehow. There may be some way to re-frame the memory or suss it out that can help me "adjust" it, but to talk about removing a memory is a ghastly over-simplification and is dehumanizing.
Not only that, but she says there are choices we make with our memories. We can choose to dig up an old memory, polish it, re-live it and all the feelings that go with it. Or not. The person we are in the present is shaped by the choices of what we do with our memories.
Baylis continued, saying that we should never for a moment believe that our memory of a past event is a true, factual representation of what happened. It is impossible for that to happen because our mind creates memories within a hugely complicated context of other bits of information. The purpose of my mind creating a memory is to create a meaningful bit of "my life" that is stored. In so doing, my mind is creating myself anew, bit by bit, with each new memory, with each conversation and encounter with the outside world. And the outside world includes other people's ideas, opinions, things I see, hear, do, choose to believe, choose to ignore, choose to question.
Ultimately all that makes me 100% "me" is the sum total of my memories. I am today what my mind has formed me to be in my memories. And I am this same "me" to others. My base of operations, so to speak. And other people take "me" in as I go about my daily business of working, loving, jamming, or farting around.
We say, "you live on in our memories" to a dead loved one in a newspaper memorial. They talk and act as if the person was still there, in their minds, in their memories, in their hearts. Like a mysterious piece of their loved one was still actually there. There is a mystical and possibly spiritual thing going on. Aside from the debate about whether there exists an invisible, eternal soul for each person, I'm forced to admit at the very least that my mind is a mysterious-wonderful thing that uses invisible, complex building blocks that I don't understand.
The creation of a memory is not just a single, simple act of one person. It is a community thing. It is a collective act by many others who shared the experience. This collectivity of memory underlines the importance of history, storytelling and culture in the human experience. The building of our community into a group of people who work together and trust and help one another is enabled by our collective memories, our shared stories, and most importantly, our shared feelings.
As a community we remember the feeling of security, peace, hope we get when together we reflect on our collective, happy memories. Happy times together, coming through a struggle together, working and collaborating together ... all these interactions are invisible glue that bonds people together into a community.
Baylis continued, "We are not [just] these independent, rational atoms bouncing about in the world. We are deeply interconnected; we are deeply dependent upon others and part of that dependency comes through our memories, and it comes through our ability to share those memories and elicit those emotions in others. Imagine if we get rid of our own emotions around those memories, how do we then go about eliciting those emotions in others? I believe it is those emotions that hold us together as a people, not inanimate objects."
And now I get to my point. I hate organizing events. I guess event organizing is not in my DNA. It's hard work for me to get together and socialize. But some people love to make and host events. And others drag me out.
Thanks to those people who create events that allow us to make new memories around our shared interests and beliefs and to share old ones. What a huge act of generosity it is when someone chooses to pull others close for the purpose of sharing something special.
And thanks to everyone who attends such cultural events because they know that being together is good. Thank you for being there. Your belief that together is better, put into action, helps us all more than we know.
Thanks to the people who design projects that pull us together virtually as well. They create sharing spaces where we interact and share stories. It's not quite the same as being there in person, but it's a big step in the right direction.
Wonders of brain research aside.
Ethical issues around meddling with our memories aside.
We need to stop and just stand here in silence for a while. A long while. As we stand in silence, it will begin to sink in just how amazing we are. All of us. In this world.
I stand in awe of what we are.
My next post will be about a special "together" project by a Hamilton dude that is worthy of our attention. It's called "Shameless Subversion."
I hope you'll embrace it with me.