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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Memory

I find memory to be an interesting thing. I don't mean computer memory, although that's neat too, but rather what's known as "episodic memory." This is, essentially, the kind of memory that allows you to remember who you are, where you've been, what you've done, and so forth. It is, in short, what we usually mean by memory and is in contrast to the skill memory that allows us to ride a bicycle or speak properly. The reason I find episodic memory so interesting is that, in a very real way, it defines who we are.

My interest in this kind of memory really stems from two places. The first place is my sleep pattern. As my wife can tell you, I am given to unusual and rather vivid dreams. Sometimes they're fairly hysterical, but more often they're pretty unsettling. Last night, for example, I "enjoyed" a dream involving Hannibal Lecter. I will decline to go into detail on this, save to say that if the need should arrise a long-handled screwdriver makes a better weapon than a more diminutive type. Dreams of this latter sort can leave me vaguely off for most of a day. The thing is, most mornings I don't remember my dreams of the previous night, but can tell from the contortions my body works itself into that I probably had some interesting ones. What this means, however, is that while at some point my personality and mind was engaged in an unpleasant experience, my complete failure to remember it shields me from any negative after-effects. It is only when I remember the odd dreams that they effect me.

The other reason episodic memory interests me are my experiences with surgery. At different times in my life I have required surgery of various levels of seriousness that has necessitated general anesthesia. For those who have never had the pleasure, going under a general is an extremely disorienting experience because your sense of elapsed time simply... stops. One moment you're on a gurney looking up and, the next, you're on your side in post-op. The first time you go through this it is utterly shocking as in most other forms of unconsciousness there is at least a sense that some sort of time has passed. Not with a general, however. Given my experience with dreaming, this led me to wonder: is it possible that a general anesthetic doesn't actually put you to sleep so deeply you can't feel pain but, instead, just immobilizes you and prevents you from recalling the sugery later? Disquieting, I know, but the implication is that an instance of you experiences the pain of surgery but, because the experience is not remembered, you experience no trauma. Rest assured, I am convinced at this point that anesthetic does not operate in this manner, but the notion illustrates an important point: who, and what, we are is inextricably bound to our memory. A trauma that is forgotten is no longer traumatizing. We are, in effect, what we remember.

This has been on my mind lately because of yesterday's holdiay to honor Martin Luther King Jr. It is, in essence, a day dedicated to preserving the memory of King and the civil rights movement. Yet, as we have recently seen with Hillary Clinton's remarks about civil rights, memory can be a funny thing. Close to a half-century ago, a wide reaching social movement championed by Martin Luther King Jr. succeeded in moving the government to protect more of its citizens than it had been previously. A mass effort of the disenfranchised changed the world but, really, this was no more the work of one man than the Empire State Building. Yet, the response to Clinton's acknowledgement of this was swift condemnation. How dare she imply that King's achivement wasn't so grand, so amazing, that he won the protection of law for African Americans without any support from the president? Well, she dares because she's right. Yet, our memory of that time has been changed, perhaps by our very focus on the one iconic man who played such a role in it.

What will future generations think? Now that government action has been forced out of our memory, will SNCC follow? How about the civil rights marchers? Perhaps a hundred years from now people will speak of how Martin Luther King Jr. said to James Crow, "Let my people go!" and then led African Americans out of the South. Ridiculous? Sure, but no more ridiculous than other embroidered myths passed down from generation to generation. In the end, we are our memory. Our society is what we remember it being. I would prefer we remember that we are a society where ordinary people can combine to accomplish great things, rather than one where great leaders touched by fate single-handedly raise the helpless common man from the grip of tyranny.

And I think Dr. King would prefer we remember it that way, too.

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