The Art of Forgetting

I’d like you to humour me for a moment. I’d like you to read through the short series of numbers on the next line. Take a few seconds with each number, and try to memorize the series. When you are finished, continue reading.

7 2 4 2 9 8 4 6 2 3

~~~~~~~

Somewhere in or around ancient Greece or Egypt, depending on whom you ask, the upstanding intellectuals of the day gathered in their hovels and their hideaways to formulate and practice the ars memoriae – the art of memory. The ancient form of the art of memory was deeply steeped in art. It infused techniques of recall and thought organization with the study of architecture, books, sculpture, and painting. Pupils learned techniques for combining ideas with vivid images and organizing their thought in meaningful ways. Sculptures were seen as external forms of internal images, emotions, and organization. Their goals extended beyond simple increases in recall of facts, but were meant to enhance capabilities of insight and inventiveness. Since 1991, we’ve taken part in other forms of memory arts. The World Memory Championships tests the limits of human competitive memory by demanding herculean feats of recall from its participants. The art of memory is still alive and well, yet our relationship with it has changed drastically in the last hundred years.

Alexander Romanovich Luria was a pivotal Soviet neuropsychologist whose writings, particularly his case study, “The Mind of a Mnemonist,” birthed and formed a new kind of genre in writing. Luria himself liked to call it “romantic science.” Luria perceived his patients differently than many of his colleagues. He resisted quantification and simplification of individuals. In the light of his thinking, patients were transformed from abnormalities of medical science to heroes of the human condition. To him they were people, and their struggle with living embodied our plight as a society to tackle with illness and questions of humanity. He inspired a new kind of thinking in future writers to come, in no small part Oliver Sacks, someone who represents a pervasive genius of our time.

One concept that Luria struggled with in psychology was the shift he was observing from detailed observational accounts to abstract analysis of data. With the advent of computers dawning upon humanity he found that “… the reality of human conscious activity was being replaced by mechanical models.” The foreshadowing here is not lost on me, as most of my own work involves number crunching and a hefty reliance on mathematical models. The danger of abstraction without context is the potential meandering away from the reality we are trying to study. We become prone to a sweeping confirmation bias, and we become blind to the details of our present reality in favour of some alternate one. There existed one man for which any traditional concept of simplification, abstraction, or mechanical modeling utterly broke down. His experience of reality and his memory was so peculiar that he completely changed the way we think and deliberate about memory and subjective reality. Luria refers to him simply as S., but there is nothing simple about him.

~~~~~~~

Luria’s first encounter with S. took place in the 1920’s in Russia. At the time, S. was just under thirty and working as a reporter. He was raised in a conventional Jewish household and had come to Luria at the behest of his editor, but was completely clueless as to why he was being sent to a psychologist. The editor began each morning at the newspaper office with a long list of specific tasks he wanted completed that day. The editor was taken aback when S. never wrote any of it down, despite the fact that S. was a competent, although not gifted reporter. Upon confronting S., the editor realized that indeed S. was able to perfectly reproduce the instructions from memory.

As was naturally his job in this situation, Luria began to test S.’s memory. The result of the initial meeting was enough to completely and utterly embarrass and perplex Luria, without raising an eyebrow from his subject. Luria began by asking S. to memorize series of words or numbers: Ten numbers, 30 numbers, 50 numbers, 100 numbers. It didn’t seem to matter. Whether it was words, numbers, nonsense syllables, sounds, spoken or written, if S. was given a few seconds with each element, he could immediately reproduce the entire series, forward or backwards or in pieces, without a single error. In Luria’s own words regarding his job as a psychologist, “… [I] had been unable to perform what one would think was the simplest task a psychologist can do: measure the capacity of an individual’s memory.” He had to admit that S.’s memory appeared to have no distinct limits. It was simply something unquantifiable. Even more surprising, when prompted without prior notification, S. was later able to reproduce any of the series’ he had learned 15 years prior at a moment’s notice. It appeared that the durability of his memory was also limitless. Luria had to simply relinquish any attempt to quantify this man’s memory, and instead focus on the “psychological aspects of its structure,” a line of research that lasted for decades.

~~~~~~~

One of the most important aspects of S.’s memory to keep in mind is that, at least when he started meeting with Luria, he did not actively memorize anything he was given. He merely contemplated the elements of a list, image, or series, and then was able to read them off as if he was staring at a piece of paper. He could reproduce a series in any order by simply attending to another point on the page. How was he able to do this, and without error? By asking S. himself, it was found that he was not simply registering visual imprints of the information he was being fed, he had synesthesia.

Presented with a tone pitched at 2,000 cycles per second and having an amplitude of 113 decibels, S. said: ‘It looks something like fireworks tinged with a pink-red hue. The strip of color feels rough and unpleasant, and it has an ugly taste – rather like that of a briny pickle … You could hurt your hand on this.’

If you’re anything like me you can see from this short passage that S.’s experience of the world differed drastically from what anyone would consider normal. The borders between his senses seemed to be very undefined. For him, every letter, every word, every sound, had an entire experience associated with it. When listening to someone speak, he could not help but experience the lines, blurs, splashes, colours, tastes, or other sensations that would arise.

One of the techniques S. is most famous for is the “mental walk.” In remembering a long series he would often take a walk in his mind through a familiar setting such as the streets of Moscow, or rooms in his childhood house. Along this walk he would place the things he needed to remember. Since he could transform virtually any information into an image, this method worked for words as well as numbers or nonsense sounds.

Even numbers remind me of images. Take the number 1. This is a proud, well-built man; 2 is a high-spirited woman; 3 a gloomy person (why, I don’t know); 6 a man with a swollen foot; 7 a man with a mustache; 8 a very stout woman – a sack within a sack. As for number 87, what I see is a fat woman and a man twirling his mustache.
(September 1936)

We’ve already established that these images, which were conjured in S.’s mind, persisted for decades after they had been formed. After asking again and again, ‘what can he remember?,’ and realizing that it is not a lucrative line of inquiry, we should instead ask, ‘what can he forget?’ S. would occasionally omit elements of a series, as you would expect of someone who was losing some details. However, S. almost never reproduced material inaccurately. That is, he rarely produced an answer that was not part of the original series, such as a synonym of an included word injected in order to maintain the meaning of the series. He describes his experience of accidental omission:

I put the image of the pencil near a fence … the one down the street, you know. But what happened was that the image fused with that of the fence and I walked right on past without noticing it. The same thing happened with the word egg. I had put it up against a white wall and it blended in with the background. How could I possibly spot a white egg up against a white wall?”
(December 1932)

If he had placed an object in a dark alley, or against a background of similar colour, he may pass them by on his mental walk without noticing them. These were not errors of memory at all, but errors that can only be explained in the framework of perception using factors such as clarity, contrast, the isolation of figure from background, and available lighting. Furthermore, why was his memory never distorted, even over many years? The explanation for this lies in his synesthesia. Anything S. would have to remember came with a vivid experience of images, tastes, or sensations. This allowed him to have redundant information available. In the case that one part of his memory had been recorded incorrectly, the other senses would not match-up, and he would be aware of an inconsistency.

After floundering for many years through various jobs, S. became a professional mnemonist, giving many shows each day where he would perform fantastic feats of memory. This occupation forced him to develop more concrete strategies to simplify and improve his memory. Some of them involved developing abbreviated or condensed images so that he could put himself in a situation without having to go through the trouble of conjuring every detail at once. Some were, from his perspective, painfully simple.

… I see to it that the place is lit up by having a street lamp nearby … I don’t put things in dark passageways any more … Much better if there’s some light around, it’s easier to spot then.
(June 1935)

~~~~~~~

Did S.’s endless memory cause him to get confused? During his time as a professional mnemonist, giving many performances every day, he was tormented by his memory. He simply could not wipe out the memories of a previous performance even though he knew they were no longer necessary. The images of old performances would arise, especially if something he was being asked to memorize was similar to something he had memorized before, and the two series would get blurred together. He tried all kinds of techniques to solve this problem. At first he would just mentally cover up a no longer needed blackboard of information with a thick canvas, so that he could not see through the fabric. Later he attempted to write things down on paper, signally to his mind that he no longer needed them. However, even if he ensured that the paper and pencil he was using was as identical as possible each time, he would still remember the details as he had written them down. He even went so far as to burn these pieces of paper, a physical manifestation of his willingness to be rid of the information, but he found that he could still see the letters and numbers in the burned ashes of the papers. He was eventually able to develop techniques to combat this, but unlike you or I, the effort we dedicate to remembering he was forced to dedicate to forgetting.

~~~~~~~

We could speak endlessly about S.’s amazing memory, but the more I hear about his abilities, the more I have to wonder, is his subjective experience of the world anything like mine? In the Nagel-esque sense of ‘what is it like to be a bat?’ What is it like to be S.? To put it another way, here’s what went through S.’s own mind when he was trying to imagine what someone else might be feeling.

… I was ten or eleven years old and was rocking my sister to sleep. Since there were a lot of children in our family, I, being second from the oldest, often had to rock the younger ones to sleep … I had already sung all the songs I knew. (I had to sing in a loud voice, since it has to be foggy if one’s going to fall asleep.) But why was she taking so long to fall asleep? I closed my eyes and tried to sense why it was she couldn’t fall asleep. Finally I guessed the reason … Perhaps it was also because of a zhuk?” (a word he used to mean many things) “So I got a towel, put it over her eyes … and she fell asleep.
(September 1934)

It’s obvious from this passage that S. could not readily understand why his sister could not fall asleep. The way we perceive the experiences of others is an extension of how we experience the world ourselves. For S., this means that taking on the perspectives of other people could be extremely difficult. Even knowing that his own reality was different than that of other people’s, he could not help but extend his reality to encompass the world around him.

… I’m sitting in a restaurant – there’s music. You know why they have music in restaurants? Because it changes the taste of everything. If you select the right kind of music, everything tastes good. Surely people who work in restaurants know this…
(May 1939)

What difficulty his experiences must have caused him. Take the case of words or names. If I remind you that the words ‘pine,’ ‘fir,’ and ‘birch’ all refer to kinds of trees, this seems completely trivial. Yet, S. had difficulty with such categorizations when the images and sensations evoked by the word did not match what the word was supposed to mean. We generally take for granted that words with completely different appearances and sounds can represent the same thing, or that the same word in a different context can assume a different meaning. These kinds of abstractions were extremely difficult for S., and it made reading passages quite time consuming, since he had to suppress his own mental images and allow the text to lead his thoughts. For example, the names Masha, Marusya, and Mary are all variants on the name Mariya, and could of course be different names for the same person. To S. this was almost impossible. The images conjured by each name were so different, he could not conceive that they could be referring to one person. For him, the expressive power of the individual letters and syllables of words were too intense.

Figurative thinking is completely natural for an adult. It might be said that all poetry relies on a kind of figurative thinking. One might intuitively think that well written poetry attempts to create a vivid graphic image in the mind of the reader, but this is not so. Essential to poetry are the ideas evoked by the description. The images themselves serve as a means to dig up ideas and to reveal the intent of the poem. Of all kinds of writing, S. found poetry and non-literal figurative expressions the most difficult.

… And take the expression to weigh one’s words. Now how can you weigh words? When I hear the word weigh, I see a large scale – like the one we had in Rezhitsa in our shop, where they put bread on one side and a weight on the other. The arrow shifts to one side, then stops in the middle … But what do you have here – to weigh one’s words!
(May 1934)

With reference to the lines of a poem by N. Tikhonov:

Sunset rumbled – that’s impossible. A sunset is something idyllic … As for grass rocking, that’s not right. Little blades of grass don’t rock; a tree does. And so I saw sedge grass. But if the sunset is idyllic, what’s making the grass stir so that it rocks?
(March 1938)

Abstract concepts are not easy to understand by any means, since one cannot rely too heavily on visual imagery to understand them. Children often have difficulty with them. To S., if he could not see something, he simply could not understand it.

Infinity – that means what has always been. But what came before this? What is to follow? No, it’s impossible to see this … In order for me to grasp the meaning of a thing, I have to see it … Take the word nothing. I read it and thought it must be very profound. I thought it would be better to call nothing something … for I see this nothing and it is something … If I’m to understand any meaning that is fairly deep, I have to get an image of it right away.
(December 1935)

It is the way with abstract concepts that sometimes our intuition, the images which we summon in our minds, are the direct obstacles to our understanding of an idea. For S., these obstacles blurred the path to abstract understanding his entire life.

~~~~~~~

We are coming close to the end of our journey with S. and Luria. I could easily ramble on and on for many more pages without hesitation, but I will try to wrap up this adventure with what I find to be the most interesting and simultaneously disturbing of S.’s abilities.

This is the point where S.’s thoughts percolate into the realm of the magical. The imagination of S. was so vivid and rich that it had a kind of power over reality. Not the kind of power where he can control our thoughts or manipulate your actions, but the kind where he could trick his own body. At S.’s own request, one day the scientists sat him down, and checked his pulse. At rest it was around 70 beats per minute. They would then ask him, please speed up your pulse, and sure enough after only a slight pause, his pulse read 100 beats per minute. They said slow it down, and it was 65 beats per minute. How could this be? S. responds:

What do you find so strange about it? I simply see myself running after a train that has just begun to pull out. I have to catch up with the last car if I’m to make it. Is it any wonder then my heartbeat increases?
(June 1938)

His control over his own body did not end there. He could simultaneously lower the temperature of one hand while increasing the temperature of his other hand. He could adapt his eyes to different light levels under normal circumstances, he could simulate a cochlear-pupil reflex, and he could even suppress pain. S. said with regards to visiting the dentist:

… I’d sit in the chair but imagine it wasn’t really me but someone else. I, S., would merely stand by and observe “him” getting his teeth drilled. Let him feel the pain … It doesn’t hurt me, you understand, but “him.” I just don’t feel any pain.
(January 1935)

It is this point which is simultaneously awe inspiring and disturbing. To quote S., “To me there’s no great difference between the things I imagine and what exists in reality.” At times, he would believe that his own imagination could alter the world around him. If he imagined someone doing something, they often did it. In this world, he could imagine away illness and predict the future. On one level, he didn’t really believe that he had this power over reality, but on the other hand, there was always a grain of doubt in his mind, wondering what parts of his imagination could actually bleed over into reality.

This vague divide between imagination and reality caused S. great turmoil throughout his life, and he was never able to really feel connected with his existence. He felt as though he was waiting for something great to happen to him. He gave his thoughts to dreams and visions while he waited for his true life to emerge. He could shift aside his daily duties onto someone else in his mind, much as he could do to avoid pain, and allow this other person, this “him,” to enter our reality and go to school, to work, or to get married. As Luria pointed out, “Indeed, one would be hard put to say which was more real for him: the world of imagination in which he lived, or the world of reality in which he was but a temporary guest.”

~~~~~~~

There is something amazing that each and every one of us does every second of our lives, and it’s something that was very difficult for S. to do. When one thinks about the amount of sensory information flooding our nervous system, it is simply inconceivable for us to process it all. Yet, a second is a second and it is gone before you can tell the moment has passed. This is why the single most fantastical, incredible, and astonishing thing that healthy humans do every second is forgetting.

More than forgetting, we are attending, we are filtering. Our brain is a filter and these are some of its inputs:

The bits and bytes of reality trickle into the sensory cells in the layers of our skin, the corpuscles (Ruffini, Pacinian, Meissner, or otherwise), every flavour of nociceptive fiber and thermo-receptor. In our muscles the golgi tendon organs and muscle spindles. In our organs, vessels, veins, and capillaries our autonomic senses. In our eyes every cone and every rod and ganglion cell. In our ears every hair cell of our cochlea, vestibular apparatus, and saccule and utricle. In our mouths the buds of taste on our tongue and the smells in our noses synapsing on thousands of glomeruli. In our minds every experience we have ever had encoded in the connections and synapses of our brain.

Our brain is a filter and this is the output:

Actions. The realization of all our subterranean substrates, our thoughts, emotions, and memories.

We own the most complex filter in this world. It allows us to whittle down the world around us to the little island we call our own. It makes our world a manageable and tangible place, something that feels whole. And when it does not behave the way we are used to, our little island is engulfed in the overwhelming maelstrom of reality.

~~~~~~~

You may have guessed that there would be a test coming at the end. So, can you still remember the series of numbers you read at the beginning? Write them down, then go back up and check yourself. What do you feel or see when you try to remember?

Maybe you can you see the numbers in your mind. Maybe shapes or colours appear to you. Maybe you hear a sound in the distance.

Maybe you taste borscht.

~~~~~~~

As you may feel when confronted with your own mind’s limitations, we are quick to curse our memory when it fails. When we fail a test, when we’re learning a new language, when we forget to buy the milk, when we forget a face, or when we miss an appointment, we wish memories would come more easily. But we can remember something very valuable. We can remember that evolution has shaped us and molded our brains over generation after generation. We should remember that the impressionability we lose as we age is protecting us. It is cocooning us from the world of overwhelming sensation, the faulty synapse, the short-circuited wire. By filtering our world, we may come to action.

We should be conscious of the most basic and fantastical art we’ve been eagerly studying for millions of years,
the art of forgetting.

Advertisements