Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Memory -- A Forged Identity Of Ourselves

A person's mind is like a silent lake where ripples generate due to external factors. But, no ripple that rises in it, dies out entirely, it leaves a mark and there is a possibility of that wave coming out again. The mind is like a sensitive photographic plate which when exposed, registers all the impressions in it. Every work we do, every movement of the body, every thought we think, leaves such an impression on the mind-stuff and even when the impressions aren't obvious on the surface, they work on the subconscious region of the mind. The physical counterpart of mind is nervous system. 

The nervous system consists merely of mechanism of receiving messages from either sense organs or own thoughts and transform them into some sort of muscular movements either locomotory (mechanical movements) or internal structural muscular movement. The message trails in the form of nervous current; leaving impressions on the pathway it traverses which once made can be retained and thereafter tends to seek the same pathway and to end in the same movement when same incoming message received. With every repetition the pathway deepens and we can say “we are forming memories.” 

The sum total of these impressions is called Memory. In psychology, memory is the process in which information is encoded, stored and retrieved. And it is this Memory that shapes our character and govern our behavior. It is this Memory that makes up the ongoing experience of our life -- they provide us with a sense of self.  In a nutshell, we are the outcome of our memories. We are the memories, we accumulate. We are the projection of our memories.

If our memory is our identity, then a question arises: Are all our memories real? Are they actually the impression of something that happened in real time not some imagination thing?

In this regard, I'd like to share some researches and studies carried out in past years. A study conducted during 1980 Olympic called 'visual motor rehearsal.' Olympic athletes were asked to run the event within their mind with actual emotions. It was found that the same muscles were fired in the same sequence as real event on tracks. It is found that our subconscious mind could not differentiate between real and imaginary because it uses the same mechanism to process both phenomena. Some of us may have experienced a biological response when reliving memories of traumatizing past, including heart palpitations and shortness of breath. The same is true with reliving positive experiences, such as remembering the overall sense of well-being that comes from being deeply happy. This is because good memories can cause the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure.

Emotion can have a powerful impact on memory. Numerous studies have shown that the most vivid autobiographical memories tend to be of emotional events. The strength and longevity of memories is directly related to the amount of emotion felt during the event of their creation. That is why, self-help books emphasize on feeling the exact cash in hands. Auto-suggestion books ask the readers to suggest themselves emotionally for result; they condemn the parrotization of suggestions.

In another study, one group of peoples were shown a simulated accident and asked "How fast the cars are going when they hit each other?" Second group was asked "How fast the cars are going when they smashed into each other?" The speed stated by second group was greater then the speed stated by first group. Moreover, the word 'smashed' caused the peoples of second group to more likely to say that they saw broken glasses at accident scene; however, in real, there were no broken glasses at all.

The other study I'm going to share was conducted under stressful condition. Stress has a significant effect on memory encoding process and retrieval process. The result was highly surprising. The subjects of this study were US Military officials. It was to teach them whatever going to happen if they were captured as prisoners of war. They were interrogated in an aggressive, hostile and physically abusive manner for thirty minutes. Later, they have to identify who conducted their interrogation. And when fed suggestive information that insinuated a different person, many of them misidentified their interrogator, often identify someone who does not even remotely resemble the real interrogator. 

It is evident clear from these studies that a misinformation has potential to distort or manipulate our memory and has direct impact on our identity. Researches have revealed that asking individuals to repeatedly imagine actions that they have never performed or events that they have never experienced could result in false memories.

Memory is like a movie clip having many frames of perceptions. We, at any time, edit it by modifying its frames, adding or replacing frames. This is what psychologists do in most of the times. In fact, we, too, often do this unintentionally. While reliving any past memory, if we introduce new information and allow this new information to incorporate into this old memory, this will change the memory. We almost always engage ourselves in some sort of thinking or reliving the past while being exposed to experiences in present. This alters the memory. We constantly alter our memories without knowing it. We may register those things that never actually happened. We are continuously forming false memories.

Let me share a fable about how it happens. A man was going to meet his wife at the residence of wife's family. His mother served him a dish made of rice and pulses together. He love the dish. He asked his mother about the name of the dish so that he'd ask his wife too to cook it. His mother told 'khichdi' as name of the dish. He lept on the back of the horse and kicked to move the horse. He was reciting 'khichdi' while on way to retain it in memory. He met a long ditch on the road. The horse jumped and his 'khichdi' turned into 'khachidi'. He continued his chanting. Then he saw a crop field. There, birds were eating the grains and the farmers were very angry. The word 'Khachidi' sounds in hindi as provoking birds to eat. 'Kha' means to eat and 'chidi' means bird. The angry farmer upon hearing this instead of throwing stone at birds, throw it at the man and asked him to say 'Urchidi' which means asking birds to fly. There were so many modifications during the journey. And when the time came to ask his wife to cook the dish. He uttered that word as name of the dish which his mother didn't tell. 

What do you see in above picture? Obviously, two persons. But, is it really the picture of persons? Nope. There are only breaks into lines and we see persons. It is a deception-- a beautiful one. Our mind has the marvelous ability to create reality through perception. A special trait of human perception, called patterning, in which our mind creates a continuation of a pattern when it perceives such a pattern. It isn't true about vision only; it's equally applied to other senses too. For example, one can easily complete this sentence: Mary had a little....... 

The nervous system abhors a vacuum. Under the best of observation condition, we only detect, encode and store in our nervous system bits and pieces of the entire experience in front of us and they're stored in different parts of the system. At times, when we've to recall what we experienced, we've an incomplete, a partial store and what happens? Below awareness, with no requirement from any kind of motivated processing, the system fills in information that was not there, not originally stored, from inference, from speculation, from sources of information that came to us, as observer, after observation. But it happens without awareness such that we aren't even cognizant of its occurring. It's called reconstructed memories. It happens to us in all aspects of our life, all the time. All our memories are reconstructed memories. They are the products of what we originally experienced and everything that's happen afterwards. They're dynamic. They're malleable. They're volatile. Our vividness and certainty of our memories are not the parameters of their accuracy. In fact, we can never know which ones are authentic.

And, if we come to know the authentic ones, what are their significance? None. Memory tells about past. If we extrapolate it, we'll know about future. But, both past and future are insignificant for us because we live in present and we always will. Past and future are like dreams; whatever we achieve in that, it is of no use when our eyes open-- when we come back to present. If we argue that we can utilize the knowledge of past in present then we are deceiving ourselves. No two situations are identical; they seems to be but they aren't. 

I heard a story of a doctor who visited a patient with his assistant. Patient was suffering from common cold. Doctor informed the patient that the reason of his illness is guava eating. The patient was impressed by doctors wisdom. Doctor's assistant was also noticing this. While returning to their dispensary, on the way, assistant asked "how do know about guava?" Doctor replied "I saw the guava's remains beside the bed." Time passed. Once again, the person got ill and doctor was called. This time doctor was on a vacation with his family. Therefore, his assistant visited. This time also the patient was suffering from common cold. Assistant recollected the past knowledge, looked beside the bed and to impress the patient uttered "the reason of the illness is sandal eating." We can imagine what'd happened to that assistant. Don't let knowledge become a weight upon wisdom. No knowledge is useful in present but only wisdom.

The Universe is changing every moment. The only unchanging truth is change. No sunrises are alike; no days are identical. Even we, the humans, are not the same a moment ago. 

An angry person once spat on Buddha. Buddha's disciples got angry too. They wanted to teach him a lesson but Buddha forgave him and let him go safely. When his anger silenced, he realized his mistake. He repent the whole night sobbing. His eyes swell and got reddened by crying. He didn't sleep the whole night. The next early morning he again entered Buddha's place to beg for pardon. Disciples saw him coming. They also noticed his red eyes and thought the cause of redness was anger due to their past memory experience. They decided to teach him a lesson but Buddha intervened and the person again started crying and fell on Buddha's feet. Buddha told his disciple that he was no longer the person that came the day before. He was a changed man. A spitting person could not fell on feet and who fell on feet could not spit. These are the opposites but only wisdom identifies the change not knowledge. Memory will be of no help in present.

We think we are memories; we cannot exist without memory. Our sense of self is based on our memories. But we were, prior to our memory, and will be, after dissolving our memory. Our true nature is not our autobiographical memories. Our true self is not dependent on memories we collect. It is the memory that covers our true self and deceives us to believe it as our 'self.' We were born without any sense of self. Researchers have proposed that children do not develop self-recognition skills and a personal identity until 16 or 24 months. They also proposed that we develop knowledge of our personal past when we begin to organize memories into a context. This message is reflected in Kabir's statement: "I left as I got." Kabir is saying that he was born without sense of self and he left his body without it. Researches also revealed that verbalizing our personal memories of events contributes to our autobiographical memories. That is why sages emphasizes on silence.

We create memory to shape ourselves into forms. The formless form of ourselves is dreadful. Eternity, uncertainty always frighten us because we forget ourselves and wrapped a forged identity of false memory around ourselves. 

We are alive because of our memory. We'd die without this memory. And that'd be the real death. The death of body isn't real death; it's like changing clothes. Gorakh says I teach death, the death I passed through and became awakened. It was the death of memory, not of me. The ego died, not me. Duality died, not me. Duality died, and non-duality was born. Time died, and I met the eternal. The small constricted life broke, and the drop became the ocean. Yes, certainly when the drop falls into the ocean  in one sense it is dying. As a drop it is dying. And in another sense for the first time it attains to the great life  --  it lives on as the ocean. 


  1. wow ....such a nice and different way of looking at "memory/ies"! Whenever I hear and use this word, it brings out lots of emotions . Its a very favorite game for most of us to play with memory. we love to re live bad and good past moments. Both make us sad because we know that those moments will never come back in our life ( see i am again becoming emotional) . But you've presented memory in a very practical light. I agree with you. Memories sometimes hold us and do not allow us to grow. We try to present a different image of ourselves to the world because of our memories and eventually forget who we were in the beginning. Your article reminds us that living on memories is not a wise thing and If we understand how it actually work it might help us to separate it with our ego. Of course , its not easy and take many incarnations :)

    1. I can understand, Shainee. You've just entered a seven incarnation pact :(
      Enjoy your journey :)

  2. Nice post Ravish, I guess I heard this story of Khichdi long back and still remember it. You reminded me of my childhood by sharing this story :)

    1. I too heard it Alok in my childhood as one of my bedtime story. I'm glad that it reminds you of your glorious days :)

  3. Excellent write up. Ravish it seems to follow your post I have to re read the entire syllabus from my college, which is a nice thing. Memories are just our perception. There are various things influencing it. The other day i was discussing defence mechanism and regression. Our mind erases or reduces the memories which are traumatic as reliving them every moment will create the same brain activity as the original trauma. For example my brain's defense mechanism to fight with dad's death was to actually and conveniently blur the incident of his death and enhance his living memories. It creates a same trauma every time I remember him. Though I can't regress but I conveniently forget that he is no more. Being a psychology student i can't even cheat using defense mechanism and regression I guess. Memory studies are the most interesting studies in psychology. Keep writing!

    1. Thanks Datta for the encouraging words. I'm sorry for your Dad. May he rest in peace!

  4. That was a very different take on memory. Memory sometimes holds us back, but at the same time it helps us to cherish happiness and love. It's up to us how we interpret memory to define our future activities. And, there we very much need the intervention of wisdom.

    Thanks for the link. Enjoyed this article very much..... :-)

    1. Yes; that's why, asked to look at this too. At some point of life, you need it, and on some other, you have to drop it & move on. A blissful life is a constant process of attachment & detachment simultaneously. As for example, we need to breathe in & breathe out too. If we don't breathe out and only breathe in, then also we will die.

      I too enjoyed your empathetic haiku, Leaf. :)