Memory is a strange beast. So many different parts to the puzzle. What the heck is it actually?? What is the material it is actually made of? What medium does it travel in? Where does it actually reside? Science seems to describe it as a process... which is strange because I experience a memory as a whole thing. To start off my meandering exploration of ideas around memory, here is what New Scientist tells us memory is this:
Even with this explanation, I am still not clear, nor am I clear that anyone is clear, what actually is it when I remember a whole moment, complex with all the smells, images, emotions, place and time. As a scientist of life, I love examining my live experience of memory, and really enjoy the daily life experiments that I can do with it.
Different ways I encounter memory: dreams, smells, places, with people, in movement and language.
Flash backs in dreams, where something happens in the day, and all of the sudden I see a scene from my dream, where it was previously lost in the cavenous dark tunnels. Something brought it forward, into the light, flashing on the screen of the mind's eye.
The smell of those little white flowers, on bushes in England, in the spring time, that transport me back to being with my cousins in London, 30 years ago!
Memorising text as a young student, at the Royal Conservatory for competitions, or for speech day at school, or the debating club or all the verbs in latin class. There was something I noticed early on that there is a difference between short term memory and long term memory. If I wanted my work to enter into my long term memory, I needed to use repetition over many days to achieve it. It couldn't be a last minute cram on little sleep the night before.
I also noticed that it changed depending on my surrounding environment. If I stood in a different place in the room, faced a different direction, sat in a different chair it all had an impact on how my memory withstood. I learnt quickly that if I wanted to have something solid in my mind, I needed to practice the text standing here, there, everywhere, with green eggs and ham.
It also changed depending on the people that were listening. My attention can be very influenced by the people present. I could get swept up in how someone was reacting, or how I imagined they were reacting to my delivery and I would completely lose my memory of the work. I have had to learn as I was growing up, how to control where my attention goes. Not to give so much of my attention to the other people present in the situation. Like a good lesson in meditation, I needed to be skillfull in the wonderings of my mind. If I let it wonder into the crowd, it was a very disruptive process to the delivery of my speech. Mastering the delivery of speech to a group of people, was like learning to literally hold my attention in my space, with me, with my line of thought. If mind could be thought of as type of cloud, existing in a determined space, it was literally like hold my mind in the bubble of space that I am standing in. With my mind, with me in my space, I was more able to maintain my memory, and present what I needed to. This idea has helped many different people and I use it as part of my public speaking coaching.
SPACE, MOVEMENT and MEMORY
Dancing tied together some of my observations of space in relationship to memory. More commonly known as muscle memory, it had something similar, and something very different to the work of memorising words. As a child I did it very easily, I used to dance for hours, with routines I had been taught. As an adult, who left ballet after two broken feet and the trauma of a horrid new ballet teacher, I tried very hard to approach it with my visual mind like i did with the memorisation of words. This created more of a sense of panic, and emotional disruption that any successful results. The day that the penny dropped, in a ridiculous pop-jazz dance class, was such a beautiful day. I found a new way to let the information in. I tried just letting myself absorb it, observing and feeling I guess was the best way to describe it, and not fixating on getting it right. It is a much less 'clear', more foggy, much less visual, much less certain way, but learning to trust it is a very, very wonderful process. It is not a focus, like a single point of channeled, canalised, narrow mind focus. It is an awareness, wide, three dimentional, 360 degree, wholistic experience. A little like the experience of mind as a full bubble around and in my body. The memory seems to arrive, even when the focus of the mind, doesn't know. It arrives first, like something that happens before I squeeze it through the pinhole of my logical thoughts.
I also noticed that space can trigger a memory. What is that about!? I have experienced going back to a space that I once lived in and remembered things that I hadn't remembered since I left. I love that. It feels like an important part of the puzzle. There is something in the full experience, the smell, the sight, the arrangement of all the things in relation to my self in space that triggers a memory. Like the place holds the other puzzle pieces, and when I arrive all the pieces fit together and I see the full memory.
MEDITATION AND MEMORY
Which brings me to presence and awareness of all the sensory information we are interacting with constantly. When I first landed myself in a Vipassana Meditation course at the tender age of 18 I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Among many other strong impacts on my life, after the course, I noticed that my memory increased. Vipassana Meditation is a non-denominational intensive, 11 days of a LOT of meditation. Seated, walking, no talking, no eye contact, no writing, no reading as a result ... very little sleep. My mind started behaving like a crazy monkey trapped in a cage. As requested in the meditation, I forced myself to observe more of my experience in my body than I had ever done. I started to search for the sensation of my spine, the sensation of breathing through my nose, all the sensations in my body, from painful numb legs to no registered sensation in my spine, they teach you to try and observe all sensations as equal. This began a long journey for me. This work of sensation observation has been a solid companion through my adult life.
The cultivation of this sensory awareness, has increased my memory and awareness of my memory exponentially. With this understanding, it seems also like another important part in the memory discussion. With all these inputs I start seeing an idea of memory like memory a spider web type substance, network type thing that exists inside our body and expands to outside our bodies. It is connected and when the filaments match up, when I stand in the same place again, they come together, I see and feel the whole experience the way it was. Perhaps when working on text, and that one position is maintained, it trains the sensory body in connection to one external position, and when that position is shifted, we loose the whole picture, ie. the text disappears from memory. Maybe repeating it over and over again, in different contexts, makes the place more local, literally, detaching it from the external situations, and brings it into your one place, your bubble, and inscribes it in there. Like it is literally loose and large, like a net, and by repeating it, it comes into a smaller space, that you can have within your body. When it is memorised very clearly and strongly, it doesn't have a dependance on the relation to the external space.
EMOTION AND MEMORY
Another part of the elusive memory seems to be emotion. Both sensing and awareness can be completely trumped by emotional experiences. I have noticed that if my emotions are large, I don't remember much of the present context. I am more present to my emotions, then I am to my actual physical, momentary presence. SO already we could say that here and now presence creates a strong memory and anything that pulls us away from that, will diminish our memory proportionally.
I am still interested in diving a little deeper on the subject of memory and emotions. They seem to have a train track of their own. Once I feel low about something, I can somehow remember all the other things that I feel low about, and pile them on top to feel even lower. Or the same about joy. When it arrives, I can see all the other wonderful things in my life, and it carries me even higher. Or a trauma can even seal in a memory, so solidly that I can only return to that memory, if I experience part of that emotion again. Maybe it is just part of the full tapestry, like all the senses. It is part of the picture, and if we get too swept up in one part of the picture, we loose the full perspective of the present moment. Or perhaps we only remember part of the whole tapestry. Just the turquoise, or just the dogs playing in the kitchen, or just the smell of newly dyed wool.
Perhaps therefore, the key for remembering something is to be in a position where all levels of all inputs are equal. Like a well balanced sound check, where all instruments are equally balanced. Where the focus is on the symphony of the whole, and not just the violin. Perhaps it is literally learning to be like the conductor of what you are paying attention to. Where you are choosing actively over and over again to pay attention to what you have come to present (in the case of public speaking). Choosing to place your attention, thoughts, or mind is the wider teaching of mindfullness and meditation - found in anything you apply it to.
LANGUAGE AND MEMORY
Learning a language is an interesting synthesis of words, emotion, muscle memory and place. It has been an incredibly interesting experience to learn a language by listening and living in it. My previous experience of learning languages have started with intense study of many years, and then finally applying it into the live situations. This process has involved finding the memory of the grammer, at the right time, in the right context which is a strong mental exercise. Listening attentively for recognition of the words, making sense of them, and perhaps at the advanced stage applying the use of it.
Italian however, I have never studied. I was dropped into a situation where I needed to live in it, at very little notice. So I listened. Tried speaking French, And gesticulated :o and listened. and found that words would appear while I was washing the dishes. Frichatone. What does that mean? Where the heck did it come from. I had picked it up, without trying. It had entered my mind, and was spat out when I was doing a simple manual task. Very strange. It started happening a lot. It also started happening that I started saying words in the right place, that I had no idea were right. It was a similar experience to learning the dance moves. They seemed to enter somewhere different than the narrow tunnel of focus. They walked through the vast landscape and ended up in my hands to use. This was a strange synthesis of muscle memory with something as specific as words.
Very long meandering of thoughts on memory. Admittedly, this would be better broken down, but I like it as a sort of catalogue.