Oct 30, 2002 8:17pm
Memory is triggered by many things.
Smell, processed in the most primitive part of the brain, is easily the most powerful. For me, the heavy scents of boot polish and Brasso instantly evoke the recruit course at Kapooka, “Home of the Soldier”, which was never my home for the 3 months I spent there in 1995. Failing a more unpleasant experience involving cleaning products, no doubt boot polish and Brasso will always conjure up polishing, ironing, push-ups, sit-ups, The Wall, and the nagging, queasy feeling I’ve done something wrong that I’ll get in trouble for any minute.
Taste also carries memory, though vaguely, the buds worn down like river stones by the ceaseless flow of enzyme-rich saliva. Guava is New Guinea. In the backyard of one of our houses was a large (to me, giant) guava tree, perpetually laden with fruit that carpeted the ground below in yellow, toe-squishable lumps. In one of my many forays up the tree I grappled with a particularly insistent fruitbat munching on a plump guava I’d be eyeing for a few days; after I pulled the fruit from his jaws he munched my thumb instead, one of several memories still recorded in skin. The poor creature was subsequently beaten to death by a few broom-wielding hausmeris – local maids – attracted by my shrieks, who then proceeded to cook and devour it when our family turned down the proffered carcass.
[I can’t remember if I ever tasted flying fox. I recall little ribcages clothed in soft black flesh cooking in a fire. My friends would kill them with slingshots made from strips of tire-tube (there were hundreds of bats hanging in the seaside casuarinas) and roast them on the ground, so I probably did at some point. Mostly we hunted for crabs, spearing them with sharpened bicycle spokes.]
Touch evokes few memories for me, surprisingly. Tac-til-it-y (what a tasty word!) is for me the most sensuous of senses, except perhaps for taste – which, incidentally, must be why the tongue is the most sensuous organ in the body – so you’d think touch would readily stimulate memories. But though the feel of many things are immediately recognisable, usually no memories stand out from the rest. Maybe touch evokes so many that they blur, merging into one global feeling. In any case, touch is very much of the present. Direct, but fleeting. NOW. Even pain fades quickly; I remember what the bat looked like much more than I do the feeling of its fangs locked around my metacarpal. Thankfully. I certainly remembered not to wave my fingers in front of bats again. But the sensation of fangs-in-flesh is gone, if it was ever recorded. I wonder if endorphins inhibit the memory of pain, as well as enhancing the formation of pleasurable memories? It makes sense: who wants to close their eyes and feel their hand being ripped off by a sabretooth for the hundredth time? Once is enough.
As Pavlov’s salivating dogs discovered, sound is almost as powerful as smell. Music especially. Songs like the SMASHING PUMPKINS tune “1979” and TOOL’s “46&2” remind me of driving into university in the mid to late 90s with Paul and Kamal, arguing heatedly over some Deep Philosophical Issue and making wildly extravagant claims to back-up positions we only half-believed in the first place. ENYA is the three of us sprawled out on my living room floor late at night cramming for biol and chem exams. Those were good times. The album “Aether”, by THE NECKS, means books. I listened to it while reading for months after I bought the CD and the calm sound has become infused with the smell of a new book. (Especially “Little, Big” by John Crowley, a book that encourages you to savour the very act of reading a Story.) My CD of the Naxi Orchestra reminds of a memory recorded in a previous email, sitting in darkness and absorbing brilliant sound.
Most memories are stimulated by something that was present when the memory was laid down. But one of my most recent purchases is curious in that, unlike all the other CDs, it evokes a memory that doesn’t include the music. “The Glow” is an 11 minute masterpiece by THE MICROPHONES, the fourth track on “It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water”. I really like the album (though the follow-up, “The Glow Part 2”, is even better). The style is difficult to describe – Amazon.com calls it ‘psychedelic lo-fi’ – but, whatever you call it, “The Glow” is amazing. A few well-chosen words lead the listener through a landscape that slowly reveals itself with repeated listens. If I was an animator, I would animate it, because I can clearly see a little cartoon man sleeping in his cartoon cabin while the wind howls outside and The Glow whispers to him. By the time he slips through the door at the bottom of the ocean, the feeling I have is identical to a moment from my childhood.
I was about 14, and playing ‘Mayhem in Monsterland’ on my Commodore 64. The game was a difficult, addictive platformer. Basically you steered a super-cute dinosaur called Mayhem through alternatively dark and bright lands, collecting magic dust and stars, bouncing and charging through monsters along the way. The aim was to help your friend, the bungling apprentice magician Theo Saurus, cast another spell to make the world a happy place once more. Life and Death stuff. I managed to track down a converted version for the PC last year, and was surprised by how much I remembered. (The fact that I actually have brain cells devoted to the location of all the power-ups on the happy stage of Pipe Land is either mind-blowing or pathetic, depending on how you look at it.) The game was even more difficult than I recalled. After a small dose of nostalgia, I gave up. The child was more determined. I spent weeks and months trying to crack it, getting to the final stage only to die ignominiously on the spikes of a purple caterpillar. Eventually, probability came to my rescue. The screen went black, and there was Mayhem. He was glowing, and grinning just as stupidly as I was at the triumphant musical bleeps.
Reading back through what I’ve written so far, I’m struck by two things. The first is that describing the senses invariably leads to synaesthesia, that wonderful mingling of the senses (have you heard of people with the gift of hearing colours, or tasting words?). Secondly, memories of smell, taste, touch and hearing all invoke vision. Smell might be the most powerful stimulant of memory, but sight is the medium. Most memories are as silent, tasteless and odourless as watercolour dreams. Unsurprising when you think how deeply rooted the eyeballs are in the juicy earth of the brain. I think that – except for complete paralysis – blindness would be the most difficult injury to cope with. Then all you could see would be dreams and memories. And which are more unreliable? I remember reading once that some of our most cherished memories are complete fabrications, arising out of what we wish to be true, rather than what was. That sounds true to me; it’s a process I’ve recognised in myself. Not that it can be helped anyway. In a system as complex as the brain (the most complex thing in the universe!) errors are bound to occur, just as they do when our DNA is copied and combined in another human being. Despite the best of intentions, the memory deceives. (Studies of what witnesses saw and think they saw are eye-opening.) And once you dwell on that for a while, you begin to think: “If memory can’t be trusted, what can?” The past becomes merely a reflection of the hopes and fears of the present, a mobius strip in danger of becoming unmoored from reality and floating away. Without a reliable memory, who am I? An amnesiac stumbling about like a duststorm sweeping the face of the world.
But that’s okay. Think of the alternative: an identity as frozen as a doll-face. Things happen. Even if we don’t remember exactly what, they do cause changes in our brains. Neurons reach out to touch each other and are connected. Other connections weaken. Change; growth. Though I appreciate the sentiment behind it, I always feel cursed when someone says to me: “Don’t change”. I want to change; I want to grow. Because one day I’ll stop growing. I won’t cease to change – I’ll be absorbed back into the world from which I was created. But my wonderful, fallible memories will be gone. I’ll exist only in the memories of others, none of whom will remember me as I was. Maybe I’ll leave behind traces in the collective memory, perhaps a book that lots of people have heard of, and a few have read. Connections.
I’d like to think so.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. What really matters is that, like a child told he has to go to bed, I play and play for as long as I can.