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In Search of Lost Memory

“The imagination is a necessary ingredient of perception itself.”  – Immanuel Kant

“A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”  – Paul Simon

Proust understood the fallibility of our memory (and also the extraordinary power of remembered events) long before the latest advances in neuroscience.  In Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer engagingly uncovers the insights of a number of creative artists into the working of the human mind, and how their creative works often tell us more about the human experience than any number of scientific treatises.  The chapter on Proust is particularly revealing about the fallibility of memory, describing how events are recreated in our mind each time we remember, and subtly changed and altered by the very act of remembering. Each time we remember something, we reshape our memories to fit our current realities, and therefore make continuous subtle changes to past events (demonstrated in many legal cases as well as experiments in behavioural economics).

The brain filters much of what we experience, and does it’s best to simplify those experiences so they can be easily stored in the brain by linking to other similar (emotional) experiences as simple rules (of thumb) that we can use to navigate the world.  The brain is very efficient at simplifying the world to ensure that we do not all suffer from sensory overload and data deluge, and can manage the majority of our lives with as little mental effort as possible. The memory draws from the past to inform the present and help predict the future. Habits are really the KISS principle in action!

While such habits sometimes catch us out, or lead to bemusing and “irrational” consequences, in the vast majority of cases they help us to simplify our lives and minimize the effort and energy that our brain needs.  Despite it’s huge resources and complexity, the brain is simplicity in action.

Proust was also acutely aware of the power of the senses, and especially smell and taste, which are uniquely sentimental.  Taste and smell have direct connections to the hippocampus (where our long term memory is kept).  This is unlike other senses which are first processed (filtered) in other parts of the brain, something which reflects the past evolution of the brain and the senses (in some ways, our brain evolved from the smell organs of our ancestors).  This explains why smell in particular has such power to evoke past experiences, and why it is more difficult to put into words (which are processed elsewhere in the brain).  Many of Proust’s descriptions also capture the often seemingly ‘random’ nature of memory, consisting of many associations built over time, sometimes with no logical connection.

Lehrer quotes a great passage from Proust, which I think is worth repeating:

“When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

What can we learn from these insights?  Firstly, I think it reinforces the importance of taste and smell, and also the difficulty of measuring such influences, which are almost impossible to verbalise for the majority of us.  More importantly, as researchers we should always remember that every time we ask a respondent a question we are subtly (or with leading questions, not so subtly) altering their memory of events.  Indeed, just by asking a question we may be making relevant something which was previously irrelevant to the respondent.  What is the answer?  Follow the brain’s example and simplify – focus on the rules of thumb that each person uses to navigate the world, and ask smarter questions, which let respondents tell us what is important for them.

Proust Was A Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer (2007)

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer (2009)

The Seven Sins of Memory by Daniel L. Schacter (2002)

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