Insight: How Precious Is Your Memory?

Do you think your memories are very precious? Do they feel fundamental and inseparable from your identity? Are you afraid of losing them?

I do not share these intuitions. I do not think memories are that valuable, that they are me or mine, or that they must be preserved or defended. In fact, I think my memory is a lot like my hair.

The Shedding Argument (Impermanence)

The internet informs me that the average person loses between 50 to 100 strands of hair each day. This loss doesn't bother me. I suspect that, except for those actually balding, it bothers approximately no one.

Just as you are constantly shedding your hair, you are constantly shedding memories, too, and in a surprisingly predictable manner. Imagine that you memorize a list of words to the point where you can fluently recreate that list from memory. In 24 hours, what percentage of those words do you think you would recall?

(Please come up with a number before reading further.)

Thanks to Hermann Ebbinghaus, we know. During the 1800s, he set out to determine the properties of memory. He did this via the meticulous investigation of his own mind:1 he would memorize bits of nonsense information and then re-test himself at variable intervals to see how many he could still recall. By graphing this data and fitting a line to it, he discovered this:

The above is taken from a 2015 replication of Ebbinghaus' experiment. We can interpret this graph as implying that, once you have learned something to the point where you can fluently reproduce it from memory, you have roughly a 50% chance of recalling it after 24 hours have passed.2

Are you shocked? You should be. This is an incredible discovery. Consider just one implication: In a world where the perfect student, one who can recall all the material, is doomed to forget half of it after a day, how could our schools possibly function as learning institutions?

Surprise! They simply don't. Over a 4 year span, 36% of college students fail to demonstrate any significant knowledge acquisition at all. Oops.

Beyond that, think about the implications for right now. Your mind is a leaky sieve and this sentence is passing through it! Will you remember this tomorrow? What about 20 minutes from now? How much of this present moment will survive?

What does this say about the preciousness of memory? You've been throwing half of all your new memories away every day for your entire life and been unperturbed by it. Totally fine, actually. Given that this is the case, how precious are your memories, really, when so few of them survive? Can you defend this intuition given that you are right now discarding memories with the sort of reckless abandon befitting the most profilgate emperor?

…and does any of this bother you? Should it? Is there really anything bad about forgetting? It's happening all of the time and when it does, it doesn't feel like anything at all. It's the normal background. "Life."

The Fidelity Argument (Emptiness)

Regarding their memory, people often imagine themselves as a sort of walking camcorder, except with eyes instead of lenses. In this view, remembering something is the act of playing it back from the saved reel in your inner cartesian theatre, like a television flashback self-contained in the mind.

This perspective is captured in S04E03 of Black Mirror. (Don't worry, I won't spoil it.) The plot itself centers around a fictional device that, when hooked to someone's head, is able to play the subject's memory directly onto a monitor as it is recalled.

Does this inner camcorder seem plausible to you? Do you think your memories are detailed enough to be displayed on a television? This isn't a trick question. How detailed do your memories seem?

Got your answer?

Cool, now let's dissect an actual memory. Just like in high school biology, you're going to need some tools before you begin:

  1. something to draw with
  2. something to draw on.

Ready? Here's what you're going to do. Summon up a memory like, say, your first kiss or, simpler still, what a bicycle looks like. Using that memory as a reference, draw it in as much detail as you can manage.

I'll wait.

(You'll get more out of this if you actually attempt this instead of just reading forward.)

(Seriously. Do the exercise.)

How'd it go? How plausible does that inner camcorder seem now?

I'll tell you how it went for me. I set out to draw the memory of my first kiss. At first contact, the memory seemed like it really could be a scene. There was an emotion associated with it—embarassment (it was awkward). Undeterred, I tried for a closer examination of the memory, looking for actual detail to draw.

…which resulted in pure frustration. The task is impossible. The memory does not break down into anything like a scene at all. I know what happened, who it happened with, and where it happened. The "what happened" is as detailed as the words that I need to describe it. Along with this, there is a sense of motion. That's it.

As I continue to pursue this, the mind tries to backfill the memory with plausible details. I know that it was at a movie theatre, and I know we were leaving, so maybe it happened between two automatic doors. Perhaps the carpet was green, no, wait, maybe it was blue, or could it have been red? This one theatre I often went to, it was in a mall and had red carpets, maybe it happened there but, wait, what kind of doors did that place have, again? Were they even automatic?

Should I push farther, I can continue to elaborate on this scene, but these details are not in any way the truth. They are the output of a process of "plausible imagining."

The idea of the mind-as-camcorder is an absurd but widely held fantasty. If it were true, 100% of people would be able to draw a bicycle. Instead, most end up with a monstrosity like one of these:

A closer metaphor is mind-as-compressor. A compressor sets out with the goal of saving as little detail as necessary, nearly the opposite of a camcorder. When you ask this compressor for more detail, there isn't any. It didn't bother to save anything other than models and concepts and summaries. That's why, when you set out to draw a scene, you instead end up with stick figures and awkward conceptual goo. Faces like these:

You get the idea. Your memories are not precious stores of saved detail. They are less vivid, less satisfying, and altogether less real than they at first appear. The solidity of memory, like experience in general, is an illusion. Realizing this is a bona-fide capital-I Insight.

The epitome of wonder is experienced when ‘I’ realize that I am unknown; that ‘I’ do not have the answers. ’I’ do not know this, the actual world… ‘I’ am always only a foreigner attempting to sneak a peek ‘outside,’ only to recoil in horror at the sight of the perfection ‘I’ am so obviously lacking. In a sense, the realization of one’s anonymity is itself an answer to the question: what does it mean to be fully alive?

—Trent, this Dharma Overground thread

Here are some other damning things about memory:

This Bathwater Has a Lot of Babies In It

By the ninth day, the silence had so eased up I felt assured that a little while longer and all would be normal again. But as the days went by and I was once more able to function as usual I noticed something was missing, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Something, or some part of me had not returned. Some part of me was still in silence. It was as if some part of my mind had closed down. I blamed it on the memory because it was the last to return, and when it finally did, I noticed how flat and lifeless it was—like colorless slides on an antique film. It was dead. Not only was the distant past empty, but also the past of the previous minutes.

Now when something is dead you soon lose the habit of trying to resurrect it; thus when the memory is lifeless you learn to live as one who has no past—you learn to live in the present moment. That this could now be done effortlessly—and out of sheer necessity—was one good outcome of an otherwise exhausting experience. And even when I regained my practical memory, the effortless living in the present never left.

—Bernadette Roberts, The Experience of No-Self

I wrote the above sections of this page several months ago and, later, ended up removing it from the site: it's too sour. You might get the impression that you ought to avoid reminiscing, to suppress your history, to flinch away from remembering. So I want to update this page with a big disclaimer about not doing that. Investigate them, embrace them, fearlessly poke, play, and massage them. Exhaust and transcend them.

There's this phenomenon among the depressed called overgeneral autobiographical memory. When given a cue for memory retrieval, like asked to recall a happy memory, depressives tend to answer in broad, descriptive terms, with more of a summary of a story than an actual, explicit memory. So they might answer, "when I went on a cruise in the Caribbean" rather than with a specific anecdote like "the time I danced with a beer bottle like a drunken cartoon on a cruise ship off of the coast of St. Thomas."

I recognized this overgeneral retrieval tendency in myself and, inspired by Mark Lippman's experiment, spent several meditation hours doing nothing but recalling specific memories. The results were interesting: I was able to jump associatively from one memory to the next, an uninterrupted streaming of my past history, "my life flashing before my eyes." Most of these memories shared a common core: either centering around social or romantic rejection or an instance of friction between me and an authority figure.

This was a revelation. I'd suspected I have hangups in these areas, but not to the extent that, say, half of my memories would be arguing with a teacher. And by mindfully recalling and observing these memories, they seemed less oppressive, self-liberating:

Self-Liberation, in the Dzogchen sense, means that whatever manifests in the field of the practitioner's experience is allowed to arise just as it is, without judgment of it as good or bad, beautiful or ugly. And in that same moment, if there is no clinging, or attachment, without effort, or even volition, whatever it is that arises, whether as a thought or as a conceptualization of a seemingly external event, automatically liberates itself, by itself, and of itself. Practicing in this way, the seeds of the poison tree of dualistic vision never even get a chance to sprout, much less to take root and grow.

So the practitioner lives his or her life in an ordinary way, without needing any rules other than one's own awareness, always remaining in the primordial state through integrating that state with whatever arises as part of experience—with absolutely nothing to be seen outwardly to show that one is practicing. This is what is meant by self-liberation.

The Crystal and the Way of Light

Here's what I think is going on: Depression tends to result in self-focused rumination, an overactive default mode network manifesting as obsessing over how there's something wrong with your Self, creating a lot of proliferation and painful thoughts like, "I'm unlovable," or, "I don't know what to do with my life."

Although both statements are essentially false, the mind still dredges associatively through personal memories, pulling up anything similarly painful, which then gets misinterpreted as evidence as how unfit you are, propping up and fueling this entire tower of suffering.

Do this often enough and the mind begins to associate autobiographical memory with suffering. The throes of depression are like shocking yourself every time that you reminisce. So you learn to flinch away from the memories. Soon enough, this becomes automatic and habitual, unconscious, such that when you're a study participant asked to recall a happy memory, your mind flinches away from the specifics without you noticing (except perhaps as bodily tension), and returns something vague and safe.

So, how do you undo this tendency? The trick is equanimity and mindful observation, which weakens and dissolves the flinch response. It self-liberates. Experiment with the stance from the above two sections until you're convinced that memories of the past are not as solid and real as they seem. The stressful ones, they're sort of like the scars I have on my knee from learning to ride a bicycle: damage from a less skillful time in my life.

It was such an important and freeing insight, to realize that these huge burdens of past and future that we carry around are just thoughts.

—Joseph Goldstein, Realizing Awakened Consciousness

Then play with exploring your memories without reacting to them. If you do react, just notice the reaction and let it consume itself. This may feel effortful at first; no matter. Keep going.

The biggest pitfall to watch out for when working on undoing any tendency toward experiential avoidance is treating this as one more stick to beat yourself with. It's easy to feel bad, to believe "Oh, I can't believe I was doing this! I should have known better!", except none of that is true. The past could be no different than it was, and the development of this flinching-away-from was the product of a compassionate wish for yourself, the wish to be free from suffering.

You are stronger now, with better information. You can face experience head on.

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

—William Ernest Henley, "Invictus"

Further Reading

  1. In the pursuit of insight, we all ought to follow Ebbingaus' lead. If 99theses had saints, he would be one of them.

  2. I'm reminded of the joke popular among doctors that "You forget half of what you learn in medical school and half of it turns out to be incorrect. The trick is making sure they're the same half."

If you have questions, perspective, doubt, or a simple longing for general camraderie, you can communicate with me directly by emailing robert at 99theses dot com. Don't hesitate. Your correspondence is personally enriching.