Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Persistence of Memory

The Persistence of Memory,  Salvador Dali

Every now and again something will happen to remind me of just how unreliable our memories are, well mine anyway.  Every marriage has its little inside jokes.  I was relating one of these to an internet friend when I was once again reminded of just how lousy my memory is.  

My parents used a sexist term that I attributed to the World War II generation, tomato, but always pronounced ta-mAy-ta.  A tomato was a sexually attractive and probable flirtatious woman, something of a rough equivalent to “broad” or “babe”.  Tomatoes were not sluts or whores, but then again not exactly the wholesome girl next door either.  I checked the dictionary bundled with my computer and there is no reference to a tomato being anything other than a tasty salad ingredient.  I checked the Urban Dictionary and it had a variety of usages for tomatoes, some quite nasty.  The one that would align with my usage here, was quite graphic, and exceeded the intensity that I would associate to the word.  No need for the F-word here, that is understood.  Also there was no mention of it being of WWII vintage. 

Anyhow, my wife and I have always been a little amused with the term, and we have this little private joke.  Upon seeing a large and nice looking tomato (the vegetable / or fruit if you must) I will stare at the tomato with an astonished look and say “What a magnificent tomato!”  and my wife will reply in a squeaky falsetto  “Oh thannnk youuuuu.”  The joke is based on the “knockers” scene from the Mel Brooks movie Young Frankenstein.

Here is where the persistence of my memory goes awry.  I have a very detailed memory of the scene that is visual in nature.  Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn approach a pair of large doors on a castle.  Kahn is wearing a very low cut peasant’s blouse and has an abundance of cleavage showing.  Wilder does not have a hat on an his hair is very wild and Einstein like.  On each door is a huge knocker.  Wilder notices the knockers and stops and stares for a moment in pure astonishment and says “What a magnificent set of knockers.”  Madeline Kahn puckers her lips up shyly looks down and sort of quivering her head says in a very high pitched squeaky falsetto “Ohhhhh thaannnk yooouuuuu” employing a Betty Boop eyelash flutter. 

Well as you can see my memory of this incident is rather inaccurate.  Notably it was not Madeline Kahn, but Teri Garr and there is not near the drama that I remember.  Garr does not speak in falsetto and Wilder has a hat. This is totally not the scene that I remember, and what makes it worse is that I even have my own internal video of it which follows the written script above.  

So what is going on here?  Why is my memory of this scene so terribly wrong?  

According to an episode of Radiolab, 

our metaphors for memory are for the most part wrong.  We often think of memory as being a biological filling cabinet in which memories are stored in a very accurate and detailed manner. We may have problems recalling the memory but it is often regarded as a location problem.  Find the right mental cabinet and correct drawer, and you will fairly accurately remember what you had placed there years ago.  WRONG!   Well perhaps it is the equivalent to a large hard drive or memory card, where sensual stimuli and perhaps a story are some how recorded into the neurons and are available for an exacting playback.  WRONG. 

It seems the actual mechanism is that protein bridges are in some manner constructed between neurons.  These bridges do not allow us to play back a memory per se, but  rather to re-create the situation in our minds.  Research has found that a certain drug can not only block the laying down of the proteins during memory formation, the drug can also block the action of the proteins during recollection, thus reducing or eliminating the memory.  This blocking action during recollection is felt to be evidence that recollection is not simply the access and reading of a data file, but rather the re-creation of the event mentally.  We actually experience a mini-theatrical performance of the event which then lays down some new protein bridges. 

So the problem with the persistence of memory is that these new Broadway performances are subject to our experience since the original event and our emotions at the time of the recollection.  So they get modified in the remembering. The more one remembers an incident, the more likely the memory is going to be colored if not corrupted by the very act of remembering.  How we would like to think of our various recollections is that of making a xerox copy of the original.  So after 50 recollections you basically have the same recollection as the original.  But the reality of it is more like the one of those experiments you did in school where the teacher hands a written paragraph to the first student at the left front desk.  The student reads the paragraph then whispers the story to the student behind him.  That student whispers the story to the next...all the way to the last student in the right rear of the class.  The last student then relays the story he heard verbally to the entire class.  Invariably the last student’s story is radically different from the written story handed to the first student.  Each student colors or emphasizes the story in a different manner in his re-creation of the story.  

What is even more frightening is that not only are our memories malleable by our own experience and and emotions they can be subject to modification by others.  In the second segment of the memory episode at Radiolab, they speak of research where people’s memories were intentionally modified with events that did not happen.  How you ask, imagining torture, or some scary contraption with a rats nest of electrodes affixed to the subject’s skull?  No! Quite simply through persuasive discussion.  It turns out to be rather easy to get someone to recall an event  if they believe you are being truthful.  

The danger in this lies in court testimony of eye witnesses.  It is very easy for investigators to suggest to an eye witness a modification to their memory.  As was mentioned in the podcast, an eyewitness see a crime committed.  The perpetrators leave in a car.  The car is rather unformed in the witnesses' memory.  An investigator asks, “Was it a red Camaro?”  There is some element of chance that the unformed car (which could be a green Toyota) will harden into a red Camaro in the person’s mind, just from the question. If it does, then that red Camaro is now going to be what the witness saw, not some shadowy generic vehicle but a very specific red Camaro and each recollection will give strength to the red Camaro.  There is probably a very critical period of time in which the witness needs to be very honest himself and the investigator and state “I don’t know. I can not remember the details of the car.”  If the witness is trying to please the investigator, the suggested red Camaro may very well become a “fact” in the witnesses' memory without his realization. 

I experienced this many times at work.  Something turns to shit during a test.  When this happens it always happens fast.  Slam bam thank you ma’m, and what the hell just happened?   You experience some loud noise, a whole bunch of alarms, and then the power trips. It usually occurs in about 10 to 30 seconds.  Generally you have nothing more than a ruined test.  But there may be a lot of man hours involved in that test, and you have to find out what happened.  So you sift back through the data and you start to construct a story.  You are not telling a line of BS, you are trying to figure out what happened (although in a way to cover your ass to some degree in the process).  What I found was that in the recollection of the incident I would remember more and more was the fabricated story made of words that the data presented and less and less of what I actually experienced with my senses which went something like this BOOM, WHOOSH, BANG, BZZZZZZZZZ, WHAM, THE ROAR OF VARIOUS PUMPS, ONE ALARM...TWO ALARMS...THREE ALARMS...POWER TRIP. LOTS OF ALARMS FLASHING LIGHTS AND KLAXONS SOUNDING AND THE CONTINUING ROAR OF PUMPS, RELIEF VALVES HOWLING, AND A SECONDARY TRIP OF ALL THE POWER TO THE FACILITY...BLACK AND SILENCE EXCEPT FOR THE RELIEF VALVES WHICH ARE DEAFENING.  

Teri Garr is in the scene, not Madeline Kahn. 

I can’t say I miss those incident reports.  Explaining a f--- up was never fun, even when no human error was at fault such as lightening strikes and power failures.
Finding the “What Knockers” YouTube clip was a lot of fun by comparison.  I was amazed at how wrong my memory of the scene has become.  To tell you the truth I don’t think that I remembered that Teri Garr was even in the movie.  I remembered Madeline Khan and her iconic voice and somehow substituted her into the knockers scene.  

It was my wife that actually started the joke. Years ago, I innocently made some comment about one of our garden tomatoes, and she replied “Oh thank you” in a squeaky falsetto.  I looked at her dimwittedly and she had to explain.  Well that started it.  The joke has been going on for better than three decades.  It is nothing but a silly joke, but one that glues us together through the commonality of experience.  It is really old and trite, yet it never fails to get a small chuckle.  It is not the humor that is important, it is the bonding, the shared experience.  It has been used with melons, Pop Tarts, plastic jugs, walnuts (in reverse), gourds,  even felines.  Felines?  Well every now and again the cat will sit in her lap.  “What a magnificent .... “ 

Image Credits:

Persistence of Memory, Salvadore Dali: Wikipedia, The Persistence of Memory


  1. This is very interesting. It seems that our memories are more like our dreams than the reality of any given situation.

    1. Olga,

      If you have not listened to the Radiolab episode at the link above, do so when you have a free hour. You can either listen to it on your computer or download it into an mp3 player and listen to with that. It is very interesting, and the last segment contains a fascinating description of a man who lives in the moment. He has a form of temporal amnesia where every moment is completely new and isolated from the previous moment. Scary, but fascinating.

      Your statement is spot on. Our memories are somewhat dream like, and the more you exercise them the further they drift from the truth. It really makes one question the veracity of eye witnesses. I wonder too just how much of an ill effect literacy has on our memories. We tend to make stories using words out of everything. Do we paraphrase and elaborate to make the story more convincing? I believe we do. Thinking about thinking is rather fascinating is it not?

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  2. Very interesting. It explains why my sister and I can have very different memories of the same thing. In my memory there is always more details and embellishment while hers is pretty black and white. She's much more analytical than I am and I am much more creative which isn't saying a lot since neither of us thinks outside the box much. I am pretty sure that in my versions I add to make the story seem more interesting or scary or funny, whatever the case maybe and that's why we never agree on how something happened even though we were both there living that memory. Nice post, I always learn something from you. You should have been a teacher.

    1. Alicia,

      Always an honor, and thank you for the kind compliment. You bring up an excellent point. Personality would most definitely have an effect on what was originally committed to memory, and how it is recollected. After a time, an embellisher would have a far richer and most like inaccurate memory compared to a cool cucumber. An extrovert would probably have more inaccuracies than an introvert--each recollection in some way modifying the the veracity of the memory.

      Thanks for dropping by and the compliment.

  3. I was always disappointed that we don't have the ability to accurately go back into the 'memory file' and pull out time warps from years ago. I mean, we were there, we experienced the event, we saw it with our eyes, heard it,..etc etc.....why don't we have the ability to rewind the memory file to a specific date and time and replay it for better or worse ?
    For the most part that would be so cool. Obviously some vivid memory recalls would be less than pleasant,.....and maybe that's our brains way of protecting ourselves from ourselves, if you catch my drift.?? I don't know......
    Intriguing topic Sextant.

    1. I think the problem with total recall is that our brains are not simply an electrical device, about 20 watts BTW, but an electro-chemical computer. Chemicals have a big effect on on us. We are laying down protein bridges between neurons when we commit something to memory. So there is the basis of a memory, some complex structure of proteins. So you have a cup coffee in the morning, take a couple ibuprofens, have a glass of water from the mighty Lasalle that has a number of agricultural chemicals that are not completely filtered out (or in my case a whole shit load of mine acid, radioactive elements from the various old time nuke industries along the Allegheny Watershed, and God knows how many industrial pollutants--tasty water though from the Allegheny) then you have a ham sandwich at lunch with a bunch of growth hormones and antibiotics, breath in pollen from the biosphere, and have a glass of wine or two before bed, then go to bed make love with your wife and blast your brain with all sorts of cool chemicals, dopamine, a variety of neuropeptides, and oxytocin. We are drug junkies--that's why we do sex. Then every so often a neuron dies, we have fevers, go to the dentist and get whacked with happy gas, under go a constant viral and bacterial attacks, walk into high electrical fields (like that garage of yours) and occasionally get whacked with some ionizing radiation. Now look at the density of synapses in your brain: a bazzillion in a cubic centimeter. And how does all this crap work. Ion exchange through leaky membrane walls, and what is an ion, A chemical! I am totally amazed that we are not all completely insane.

      Well perfect recall doesn't exist, but maybe that is the price of wisdom. What if all we could do was recall but not learn. We learn and use what we learn and yes it colors our recall, but think about it, if you had perfect recall but no wisdom you would be about as useful as your computer. You couldn't think or love. You could only recall and do things taught to you by rote. Its a tradeoff but I think a worth while one.

    2. Thanks for making me feel good about myself. No wonder I feel that strange aura when I walk into the shop!

  4. hmhm... I think that memories are but remembered perspectives and emotions. An interesting read.

    1. Muthu,

      Indeed memories have both an intellectual perspective and emotional content. Mine are highly visual, almost like little movies playing in my head. I am not sure about other people but I can not remember odors or flavors like I can remember visual or aural recollections. If I think of say a plate of spaghetti, I can call up image of it but not the fragrance or the flavor of it. Yet if I experience the the fragrance and flavor, I immediately would know what it was even if blindfolded. Oddly, I have the experience of tasting some flavor just out of the blue and then craving it. So did indeed some random flavor jump into my mind, or did a random craving jump in my mind and then the flavor appeared to reinforce it? I don't know. But I can't imagine what spaghetti tastes or smells like on demand.

      Tactile is strange. If I think what does sandpaper feel like, I can somewhat imagine it. The memory is much stronger than odors or flavors but not near as strong as visual or aural. When I think about this too much it seems that I lose the ability to think about it at all. I get this hollow headed feeling and the lights go off in the memory department. It seems to defy analysis. You may peek but not stare. Weird. Ha and what about kinesis memory? Think about lifting your arm and touching the top of your head. I have no problem imagining that. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  5. My sister and I discuss this, the fluidity of memory and time. Usually over drinks. :-)


    p.s. You asked for the meaning behind "Pearl, Why you little.." I had a boss once, a fearsome and powerful man, who, in a good mood, strode by my desk and announced, "Pearl, why you little..." to which I countered, "George, why I oughta..." He laughed, and that little bit cemented a lovely friendship. :-)

    1. Pearl, why you little...

      It's an honor! Interesting thought, if we modify our memories by recalling them, then if we recall them while drinking do we modify them to a boozily greater extent? is the fluidity of memory directly proportional to the fluidity of one's blood alcohol level? New memories certainly are. Back when i used to partake liberally there were certain evenings of which I have no recollection. Perhaps our inabilities apply to proper recollection as well and our memories are safe. Yet some people drink to forget...perhaps there is a larger element of truth to that beyond the cliche.

      P.S. Ahhhh! Interesting genesis of the "why you little", but one that ultimately fails to satisfy our desire for the dirt. Now myself, that phrase has been applied to me with every four lettered word and slur under the sun. Even some not under the mother used to call me a "bastridge". Thinking back though, it must have been a term of endearment. When angry she reverted back to the more proper terms of bastard, son of bitch, or shit. To her credit when I was a child she avoided the heavies with sexual connotations, not always the case when I was an adult.

      My mother hated my wife, why that little hussy (or equally heifer although not of the swamp variety) had the gall to marry her perfect son. As such my mother felt the need and the justification to call us things that my wife and I enjoyed doing to one another. "Why you little ________" Take an X rated verb and "er" and fill in the blank.

      But my mother could get Biblical as well. When she felt that our marriage was particularly offensive to her delicate sensibilities--like when we took an obviously sexually fired weekend trip without our son to celebrate our anniversary--a date that she would remember in infamy, my mother might ask me:

      "Well did you enjoy ______ing that little ______?"

      For the first blank install the obvious--but in times of extreme righteous moral outrage my mother could go with the Biblical "knowing", "lying" and once even "fornicating" (which I reminded her was technically not true because we were properly married, if not in the eyes of God, at least with the United Presbyterian Church, the US Govt. in that we filed joint tax returns and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania --none of which mattered because my mother refused to recognize the validity of our marriage and as such our conjugal unions remained fornication and thus subject to my mother's proper and justified derision).

      For the second blank fill in harlot, Jezebel, strumpet, wench, trollop for when she was being St James-illy Biblical.

      But my mother could also fall back to her agricultural roots in which case my wife was then a heifer, cow, sow, hen, ewe or mare often preceded with horny.

      For the typical level of outrage it was simply hussy, floozy, bitch or whore (pronounced whooo-er like an owl would say) in which case then I was a whooo-er master.

      Imagine, too long...I have to break this up. Continued next message.

    2. Continued from above.

      When younger, I would get pissed off, storm out of her house and not talk to her for months, but then in the later years when my mother needed care, I no longer had the luxury of disowning myself for a period of time. So I took up the saying:

      "Pleasurably guilty as charged Ma!"

      Which would piss her off to even greater heights of hateful ecstasy, releasing yet more raunchy invective. It got to the point with my mother that I almost enjoyed poking the hornets nest. Not much point in allowing oneself to hurt after a time. Lest it seem that my mother and i did not love each other, that I don't believe was true. I think we did love each other, it is just that we didn't like each other very much. I had the audacity to grow up and and marry of mortal woman of wanton flesh. Something my mother could never accept.

      BTW I didn't mean to be annoyingly persistent with my question. I posted once and I thought it fell victim to the black hole that randomly appears in Blogger...where things just seem to disappear for no reason (at one time I used to automatically CTRL C all comments before posting, too many comments just disappeared into the blogis-ether.) It wasn't until I posted it a second time that I dimly realized you had the approval on for old posts. Fortunately, the dim realization was dimly realized for I had copied the message the second time as was ready to punish Blogger with 10 billion attempts at posting this comment.

      "Blogger, why you little.... Take this," CTRL V... "and this" CTRL V.... "and this" CTRL V.... "and this" CTRL V.... "and this" CTRL V.... "and this" CTRL V.... "and this" CTRL V.... "and this" CTRL V.... "and this" CTRL V.... "and this" CTRL V....

    3. This blog entry was great! But instead of retelling it to someone, I'm going to just point them in the direction of it, because God only knows the tangled mess I'd come up with remembering it on my own to them.

    4. Sparkle,

      What an honor. How are the skunks? The days are growing shorter, so soon it will be hibernation time.

      Thank you for the kind comment and I will appreciate any readers you send my way. It gets lonely here at times. Well time to rotate the tires. Thanks for stopping on by.

  6. I make a lot of notes.
    I lose memories but I have remarkably accurate memory.
    If matching notes taken thirty years ago counts.
    My problem is others tailor their memory, don't use notes. Don't work on it and so what's the use. You end up trying to convince a skeptic.
    However making notes and records of the days seems to help pin down memories. But you have to be willing to write then each evening or whenever....

    1. Sarah,

      My wife keeps notes. Not a diary or journal per se. Just a few bulleted items in a list. She keeps it small calendar date books and it is amazingly useful. Myself? Too lazy for such things. For the most part my memory has been blasted by MS so there is not much point in trying to remember things. For instance I know very well that we went to my mother in laws for Christmas dinner last December. That is a fact that I can remember. Trying to remember anything that happened that day draws a blank. I think I do remember some things if they are out of the ordinary, but otherwise memory just seems to be a rolling sheet with fresh memories lasting a short period of time and then fading to a blank expanse with little notables plopped here and there. Computers and YouTube show me just how little I should trust those notables.

      Thanks for dropping in and commenting, always a pleasure.