Lesson 15  The Nature of Memory





    If memory, as a faculty of thought, pertains to mind, this is because souvenirs are thoughts that the subject posits as belonging to the past.  Memory is exercised on the souvenir; it is its object.  Yet memory is not just passive persistence.  When the subject becomes aware of his past, he takes a distance and remembers.  To remember is one of the mind’s particular intentional acts; it requires its own specific awareness so that the souvenir is distinguished from some weaker form of hallucination. 


    What is the significance of the souvenir’s position as reality?  When a souvenir takes place I recognise a mental phenomenon taking place in the present, and yet I know it refers to a reality at once absent and belonging to the past.  This supposes first of all that the souvenir has been fixed, then preserved, then recalled.  What are the functions of memory?  Is memory above all a conservation of the past?  Is it essentially conservation or recollection of the past?


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A.  Time’s Imprint


   Let us first consider the fixing of memories.  Is it memory’s key event?  To what extent are we aware of fixing a memory?  Does fixing happen spontaneously or it is the result of a wilful effort?


  Souvenirs fasten in several forms.  When walking in the street I may cross someone; for a few seconds his face subsists in my mind, almost intact.  After ten-odd seconds the image is gone and it is much more difficult to recall it.  For a very brief moment an image accompanying a perception stuck to the mind.  This phenomenon is called the remanence of perception, or immediate memory.  It is a very slight fixing lasting only a brief moment.  It can be likened to a very precise photograph of the stranger: his gait, his face, his clothes.  Immediate memory is not hard to clarify.  It comes together with perception in the uninterrupted flow of consciousness.  We have already seen that in  vigilance the mind is temporal, and this implies that perception and memory take place together.   Were there no remanence of things perceived, then perception would have no stability, there would be no perceptive noema.[1]  The very dimension of perception includes memory; without memory there could be no perception.


   Similarly, we experience that we can at will make an effort to fixate a piece of knowledge.  Spontaneously we retain only a few figures: mostly, above six or eight we need to make an effort.  This form of retention is the corollary of perception, its fleeting trace.  Yet it is not enough to constitute a lasting memory.  Can one therefore say that the retention of a memory requires an effort?  In certain cases it does, notably when it comes to learning by heart.  In the beginning one has to concentrate very hard; but after repeating again and again the same thing, one ends up retaining it.  In order to memorise a partition for instance the musician repeats it until he no longer needs to make an effort in order to decipher it.  The fingers go where they should, and it is then possible to omit all effort and lay one’s whole attention on the music; this way one’s interpretation can give music its soul.  It is the interest one takes in an activity or a work which makes it effortless.  We retain in depth whatever fascinates or enthrals us.  We easily forget whatever exerts no attraction on our mind.  The interest we take in anything depends on the quality of the pleasure and joy we get from it, because this quality that is joy spontaneously attracts the mind.  Memory speedily obeys the heart, even though it is governed by intelligence.  A sensitive keynote mobilises our attention and it is when our sensitivity is thus concentrated that retention is most efficient.


    Retention can also be automatic to the point of becoming non-conscious.  One has founded methods of learning on this principle.   Hypnopaedia is a method using tape recording of say a text for listening during the night.  This supposes that an automatic retention takes place unconsciously during sleep, and it seems to work moderately well.  Putting a tape recorder beneath your pillow all night is said to help you learning because it enables an unconscious retention by memory.  However this method is mechanical and unconscious, and therefore does not involve intelligence.  Consequently it lacks liveliness and understanding.


    Similarly the goal of commercial advertising is to condition the subconscious of the consumer so that he buy this or that goods.  Think of the soporific music you hear in the background of super markets!    No doubt it works, otherwise one would not invest such enormous sums in advertising.  This method, like the one mentioned previously, has good results.  Both generate unconscious retention, either in the form of knowledge, or in the form of an unconscious suggestion to desire.

      The only intelligent retention is the one involving understanding; and the correlative of understanding is an attention given to the object.  For instance if I have to learn a mathematics lesson, it is not hard for me to retain it if I have understood the reasoning.  Intelligence is always there to make up for memory’s deficiencies, and help recover a logic which is absent when memory is purely mechanical.  It is much harder for me to learn something by heart if I have not really understood it.  Mechanical retention is not impossible, but it is very brittle and rather unintelligent. The intelligence of attention is the most important element involved in the fixation of a memory, when this memory pertains to knowledge. 


   There can be vigilance although understanding is partial.  At life’s gravest moments, vigilance is extreme.  What is then fixated is not easily forgotten.  We then say that we have been “marked by an experience” or even that we are “haunted by memory”.   There are images one wishes one could chase from one’s memory.  However, this sort of fixation does not necessarily involve lucidity. That is why something experienced in duality and suffering marks you, like the wounds at the origin of emotional problems.  Then we say that the past is present only as a trauma. It has not been wholly integrated by the subject’s consciousness, contrarily to what happens when experiences take place in full lucidity, without denial, flight or concealment. 


    Let us draw some conclusions.  If there is such a thing as an unconscious fixation of memories, this means that unconscious memory extends well beyond conscious memory.  Hence, according to Diderot, we would have an immense memory of which we are unaware.  Similarly Bergson speaks of a total memory.  The mind collects every instant of the past and integrates it to memory.  Conscious experience takes place inside a field of consciousness enclosed by attention, but this field has margins.    Retention in memory does not just involve attention and its limited lighting.  It also includes material neglected by attention.  Everything is there within us, we don’t forget anything we have experienced, everything appears to be preserved.  Yet it is not easy to recall whatever was fixated in the past.  It is not because you cannot remember something that the details of this experience have not been engraved in your memory.  Dreaming sometimes reveals that some souvenirs one believed to be forgotten are still there.  They manifest in striking images from the past.  Hypnosis shows as well that it is possible, through suggestion, to have a person sunk in sleep, and recover elements in his memory which are unavailable to him in the waking state.  The results obtained in hypnosis are sufficiently significant to show that the hypothesis of a memory retaining the totality of experience is not a gratuitous idea, but a reality.  Our mind is active in perception beyond what we experience as our present activity.  It retains all our impressions.


      Voluntary fixation is possible only on the basis of a spontaneous fixation, one we also encounter in animals.  While unconscious retention is automatic, voluntary fixation involves an intentional effort.  This effort would not be sufficient on its own.  Straining vigorously during learning yields only mediocre results.  What is really efficient in learning is a sincere motivation of the learning mind.  Motivation is more efficient because it rests on interest and because it is not imposed from outside.  We can spend hours learning whatever fascinates us without finding it difficult.  This interest does not derive just from the thing itself but pertains above all to our own desire, to our passion.  Passion is the spiritual well which perpetually feeds our interest.  It is the life and youth of the mind.  An alert mind can take an interest in all things and consequently it can learn anything.  Without this alertness what could it obtain?  Alertness renews one’s interest in something, this interest takes the form of vigilant attention, attention perceives an order, put things in relation to one another and retains this order.


B.  Saving Memories.


       1)  Now, in what sense can one speak of a conservation of memories?  The most basic answer consists in using a simple model:  a memory is preserved in the same manner as an imprint, which can be kept once it has been made in wax.  Once the seal of the ring has been imprinted, it is enough to keep the wax in a box in order to keep the imprint.  If we want to keep this analogy and interpret it from a materialistic standpoint, we will say that our senses are the wax, that experience is the ring and that the imprint is a kind of deposit somewhere in the brain.  The brain would then be a sort of archive file with drawers or a filing cabinet.  This is how the XIXth century used to view the different regions of memory.  It is the sort of doctrine one found then in the theses of T. Ribot.  One regarded this as proven because if one removed a section of the subject’s brain, he could no longer remember; whence the idea that the memory must have been located in the ablated section.  Before Ribot, Descartes partly adhered to this doctrine: the “confuse sensations leave some of their traces in the brain and they remain there the entire life”.[2]  However, for the analogy to work we would have to consider that a “thing” called memory could be filed in another “thing” called brain, in a certain drawer that corresponds to it.  But is a memory a thing?  Would a memory not rather essentially be a moment of a mind’s consciousness?  The brain itself, being as it were at the service of consciousness, can it be understood as a thing?  The term conservation of a memory must be understood to have a very particular sense when we speak of the mind.  One does not keep memories like one does postcards in a box.  What does it mean to speak of the non-material conservation of the past?


      2)  A memory is inside consciousness itself.  Memory is one of the attributes of consciousness and the entity which exercises the faculties of consciousness is the mind.  The answer to the question “Where are memories kept?” is necessarily: in the mind.  It is impossible to think of the self while omitting its conscious continuity, its memory, just as it is unthinkable to try to imagine waking consciousness without duration in time.  Memory belongs to the very nature of the ego.  Yet what is the relation between consciousness and what one presents as a container of memories, the brain?  There must be some kind of relationship between consciousness and the world which takes place on the material plane via the brain.  Any living being automatically records its past in the form of the memory of habit; this is the kind of memory which is pure and simple repetition.  This blind and primitive memory accompanies the most immediate forms of consciousness that we find in life’s most elementary manifestations.  Memory as habit is connected to the attention to life.  However, in addition to this form of memory relating to a network of actions and reactions, there is another form of memory, memory as souvenirs found on the level of consciousness.  Descartes is aware of it when writing: “ I admit of a double influence of memory”…”in addition to the memory depending on the body, I perceive another memory, truly intellectual which depends on the soul only.”[3]  What is characteristic of souvenirs is that they can be consciously identified as mine.  All recollections are personal, there could not be an impersonal recollection.  While physiological memory is a mere imprint made upon the body, the intellectual memory recognises the past.  Habit is unconscious, true memory is conscious, it enables one to recognise it.  A recollection, because it includes a very complex conscious continuity, could not be contained in images scattered in drawers.  Memory makes sense only as a spiritual totality, the total history of the self from which it cannot be dissociated.  A recollection must be preserved in the same way as the mind itself is preserved and not otherwise, and this conservation is reflected in the manner in which mind exists as continuous in duration.


    What about this recollection-recipient then we call brain?  What part can it play in recollecting?  More specifically, what happens when a part of the brain is destroyed? Bergson understood this very well.[4]  If the brain is altered, then the organ coordinating action is altered, which entails that memory as habit, serving the needs of action and adaptation to life, is immediately altered.  And it is here that one discovers the correlation between the two forms of memory.  Memory as habit is connected with the field of action and therefore also to the field of vigilance.  The recollection which resides in the mind is also in the subconscious.  The conscious region is directly dependent on the subject’s adaptation to the world which takes place through habit.  From there it results that if the souvenir is to be recalled it must necessarily journey through the subconscious layers of the mind and lean on memory as habit.  When memory as habit is partially destroyed then the subject finds itself incapable of recalling the souvenir.  If a sick person has lost his ability to consciously evoke a souvenir, this does not in itself entail that he has forgotten everything and kept nothing.  He struggles to recover a name for instance, a word, but the mechanisms of recollection are no longer there; it looks like if had lost his memory.  In fact in aphasic people who have lost the memory of articulate speech following a lesion in the brain in the area relating to language (left hemisphere) memory can be re-educated.  One observes that the brain possesses an astonishing faculty called vicariance of functions.  The right hemisphere can be substituted for the left.  What the lesion destroys is not quite memory but the aptitude to recall souvenirs at will and consciously.  The problem of conservation of memories is not a material one.  Funnily enough, in cases of amnesia, whatever the form of the lesion, personal names vanish before nouns and nouns before verbs.  It is as if the sick person knew his grammar.  This should not astonish us: it is exactly the order of classification pertaining to action.  As you move from the verb to the name, you move away from action, that is from motion, habit.  Recalling a souvenir is difficult because the mechanism of recollection is no longer there.  Yet the memory subsists unconsciously in the subject’s mind.  Pure memory is mental and is independent of the nervous system’s mechanisms of adaptation.


    3)  Rather than reasoning about memory from so simplistic a paradigm as that of a ring’s seal in wax or a drawer in a cupboard, it would be more fruitful to opt for the paradigm of the hologram.  We owe Karl Pribam a remarkable model of memory: the holographic paradigm of memory. [5]  What is a hologram?  It is a photographic procedure which utilises the coherent light of a laser beam instead of the incoherent light surrounding us.  Unlike classical film, holographic film does not show the object directly.  Only when the object is placed in laser light does the film recreate it in three dimensions.  It has one remarkable peculiarity.  If one takes a classical film and cuts it in two halves one is left with half the image.  If one breaks the holographic film and places it anew under the laser beam, one still has the object in its totality; only it gets a little dimmer.  If one breaks the film again one still has the same object.  This means that the total information is present everywhere in the hologram and not in one part only.  In the same manner one has found that a rat that had 90% of its visual cortex removed was still able to perform very complex visual tasks.  This means that memory as a hologram is organised as a totality.


   Karl Pribam supposes that the brain possesses holographic properties ensuring that the information is present in the form of a wave field of information, similar to that on the holographic film.  This field would explain “how the brain can store so many souvenirs in so small a space”.[6]  Holograms have an extraordinary capacity for storing information.  It is not astonishing therefore that the ablation of a large part of the brain does not totally alter memory.[7]  Memory is not a thing, it is consciousness, and consciousness is also a field of consciousness.  It should not surprise us that Pribam’s research results in viewing information in the quantum form of a field of information, a wave containing the totality of the information at each point.


   The holographic paradigm is only a paradigm helping us to think about the nature of memory, but it has at least the virtue of improving our understanding of memory by distancing us from the ordinary thing-like metaphors.  Where are souvenirs stored?  We can give only one answer: in the mind, because the mind is not a thing, a recipient like a pot containing flowers.  The mind is the uninterrupted stream of experiences and its application in the field of our present awareness.  It is in the nature of the mind to carry its past with it.  The self is akin to a snowball rolling on the slope of a hill, ever growing from all that happens to it, and perpetually enveloping a richer experience.  The real problem is therefore not to know what the conservation of memory is, but how it comes that the whole of the past is not immediately present.



C.  Recollecting the Past.


    If the whole past is not present to the mind, this is because only part of it is recalled.  Recalling the past is the memory’s function of recollection.  It is only then that there is a genuine experience of memory, that of a souvenir which arises and is then recognised as souvenir.  This awareness is well and truly awareness of something, it has an object which is the souvenir, and this object is very different from a perception or an image.


    1)  Let us first consider voluntary recalling.  In order to remember, I must have this intention.  To remember I turn away from whatever is holding my attention and ask myself: “That man I used to know, what was his name again?”  Having the intention and expressing it does not always yield immediate results.  Memory’s response is not always instantaneous and it frequently happens that the souvenir does not come back.  Or it does come back but later, long after it was being solicited.  It also frequently happens that I rack my brains to recall something, then I give up and go to bed, only to wake up in the middle of the night with the memory I was looking for.  Memory does not immediately obey the will, but the intention that the subject emits stirs some unconscious dynamism, which comes up with the required response.


   2)  There is also a level of memory which is spontaneous and this one can be very repetitive.  Often we experience relentless recollections: a tune that will not quit our mind, some sentence that refuses to exit, an advertising slogan that becomes a kind of mental background noise.  It is as if the souvenir recollected itself, intruded into the field of consciousness to create some sort of parasitic thought one would like to get rid of.  This phenomenon is called retentivity.  It is a little as if, when our awareness is sufficiently dim, we would behave in the manner of a scratched record, the needle of the gramophone endlessly falling back into the same groove. 


   3)  Likewise, spontaneous recollection also takes the form of thought association.  When we have to write up a technical piece of work we are obliged to follow logical rules, our ideas must come in a rational order.  Yet this necessity does not govern our ordinary mental activity.  Thoughts in our mind follow one another, but mostly through association.  We think of the Seine, and this has us thinking of Paris; we come across the name of Stendhal in a book and this makes us think of Scarlet and Black.  The mind follows associations of ideas and jumps from one thing to the next.  This means that we have memories that can be recollected simply through one of our mind’s associations.  It only requires an element to be there in the field of our awareness for it to evoke some souvenir.  We say then that “this makes me think of…”, meaning an association of thoughts.


    4)   There is another spontaneous aspect of recollection, more intense and less usual, that we could call obsessive recollection.  We have seen that passion tends to limit the subject to a fix idea.  After all what is an obsession?  It is the arising of a fix idea we recall unable to help ourselves and which comes to fill the whole field of consciousness.  If memory normally ought to be a secondary activity of the mind, it can happen that it becomes a primary one in the form of a compulsive recollection.  Passion, in the ordinary sense of a passion for something or other, is a state favouring the rule of one set of souvenirs recalled time and again.  Passion is a condition in which I am assailed by memories, in which everything takes me back to the face of the beloved, to this desire, to this fear etc…  As soon as the mind functions in an obsessive way, it is at the mercy of memory’s powerful ability to recall.  A souvenir can be so vivid that it erases the field of consciousness to such an extent that the person here and now ends up wholly focussing around this forceful memory. 


    5) The spontaneous resurgence of emotional memories are the most remarkable form of remembrance, because it is characterised neither by an effort of the will nor by a compulsive or mechanical procedure.  Memory recalls without having been solicited.  This emotional memory is the one explored by Proust in Remembrance of Things Past.  Proust vindicates the authenticity of emotional memory as different from arbitrary reconstructions by reason and the chaotic wanderings of the imagination.[8]   Affective recollections of memories occur all of a sudden by themselves because of something we perceive: an old forgotten note-book, a melody heard in childhood, places one returns to after many long years. It is as if the whole flavour of the past, its emotional tinge, revisited us.  We then recall what we were then.  This experience can be so poignant that it is not possible be it just an instant to question its authenticity: that it is about our past and about ourselves.  This is a typical mark of the memory of an experience of the self; this memory sustains the feeling of the ego’s continuity in time.  Proust remarks that this type of recollection is the opposite of voluntary recollection.  What emotional memory gives is the past with its affective mood, a past that is not an intellectual artifice.  When the Madeleine cake is dipped in the cup of tea, the feeling that arises from its taste on the palate is the living past.  It carries with it a whole wealth of sensations, the stir of an instant.  It is in this magic moment coming back to him that Proust looks for the past’s own poetry, the particular flavour of days gone-by.  It is a sort of grace given against oblivion.  A sound, a voice, an object are enough for a whole section of life to return.  And since this past is my own, it is a little of my own consciousness that I recover.


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   In its hidden folds memory retains the past experiences of the conscious subject.  Much of its function is spontaneous and does not consist in an intentional act.  What is intentional is simply the recollection of a souvenir in an effort to recall an element of memory, voluntary recollection and also the moment of emotional experience that is the manifestation of a memory to consciousness.


    Memory is not a “part” of consciousness.  Souvenirs are not things, they are not objects kept in drawers.  Consciousness cannot be divided into parts.  Neither can memory.  Memory is consciousness, it is one of the activities of consciousness.  What is extraordinary is that this activity of consciousness reveals the extent to which thought is not confined to the representation of what consciousness manifests.  Most of memory’s operations remain subconscious.


     We must beware confusions.  A memory is not an intellectual idea, it is not an image nor a judgement.  Intellect, imagination and memory are not the same thing. 




[1] Noema:  this word occurs above all in Husserl.  It comes from the Greek and refers to the thing, one and the same, which I perceive from different angles in different ways.

[2] Descartes Letter to Mersenne.

[3] Ibid

[4] Henri Bergson Matter and Memory.  Bergson is a French philosopher of mind of the beginning of last century.  Most of his books have been translated into English.

[5] See Michel Talbot L’univers est un hologramme p. 39

[6] Ibid p.43

[7] Ibid p.51

[8] See above all the last volume of this novel.