The past and remembering


I am having a great deal of trouble articulating my understanding of this idea, but I will give it my best shot. The question is, what happens when we remember? Are we accessing the past, or are we in the present accessing something stored in our brain. Someone with a strictly physical interpretation of the mind, the idea that minds are just brains, would say that we are accessing our storage area in the present. Sartre says this can’t be so, because we have a sense of pastness without which we would be unable to distinguish between a memory and an imagining. I can see two problems with this.

Firstly, if you look at current brain science memories and imagination are dealt with my different areas of the brain. So in a sense the images you have come pre-coded. It’s kind of like being in a library. You pick a book and start reading, how do you tell if it is fiction or non-fiction? You tell by which part of the library you got it from, and knowing which part of the library you get it from is built-in automatically as part of the experience of choosing a book. Similarly, when you remember, you know that it’s a memory, because it is part of the experience of remembering.

The second problem is that there are a lot of people who actually do have trouble knowing whether something is a memory and something is imagined. For example, when you relive something that has happened over the years, embellishing it as you go, the line between truth and imagination becomes more and more blurred. It’s like some imaginings are being placed on the wrong shelf in the library of your brain.

It’s a difficult problem not least because if you want to say that the mind is only brain you have to acknowledge the mind as a strictly physical thing. Since the current state of most physical things is strictly determined by its previous state you have trouble fitting freewill into the equation.

I do have blocks, but I feel a little bit like this is cheating, because I made these ones last weekend. I haven’t really been doing a lot of block sewing this week. Mostly I have been sewing coasters.


2 responses »

  1. Moreover I believe current understanding of memory is that we experience our memories very viscerally. That is, we relive the feelings and emotions we had when we were having them. This is why people more often remember nice things, and forget pain. It’s very difficult to remember pain accurately because to do so you basically have to feel it all over again.

    There are also people who have flashblacks – either drug or PTSD induced where they cannot tell the difference between past, present and imagination.

    Re your penultimate paragraph, this is where the early scientists like Newton had trouble. How to fit the notion of free-will into a universe that essentially seemed completely mechanistic. However, between quantum mechanics and chaos theory we have rather moved away from the idea that the current state of physical objects is entirely dependant on their previous state.

    • And interestingly people with depression tend to remember negative things, not necessarily physical pain but emotional pain, and relive them, rather than remembering the good things that have happened.

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