Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Memory, place, experience

I want to revisit a few concepts I've written about before. Namely the spirit of place, and how it affects the consciousness, and the idea of qualia - a philosophical/scientific way to describe the everyday experience of sensations that we feel.

Heading home yesterday, I walked through the Rydz-Śmigły park heading for W-wa Powiśle station. The afternoon was warm but overcast, the threat of rain in the air. As I approached the Poniatowski bridge, I had one of those intense *paff!* moments, when, in my consciousness, a quale (singular) coincided with perfect congruence... and I was able to place it immediately.

It was from exactly half a century ago; the summer of 1966, Poland - Polanica Zdrój, visiting with my family from Bystrzyca Kłodzka. Together, we visited the nearby spa town, walking along the tree-lined avenues. The same weather, the same feeling of being among the trees and seeing a grand building through them... and then a memory. I had bought for me there a cloth badge, the town's coat of arms, which prominently featured a red heart, appliqué on felt, which on return to London, my mother sewed onto my duffel bag (dark green and navy blue tartan), along with embroidered badges from German towns (I remember Cologne, with some gold in the design).

The wonder of the internet means I can immediately verify the memories. Google Maps Street View allows me to wander through Polanica Zdrój. Wikipedia shows me the Polanica Zdrój coat of arms, a heart in the bottom-right quadrant, and then I google 'Cologne sew-on patch' (indeed a shield on a red background with the word 'Köln' on a gold bar above a picture of the cathedral). Good to know the memories were accurate.

Feelings (sea wind on the face), smells - everything from manure to perfume - tastes, sounds (music in particular for me) and sights - the abstract things like straight roads through flat fields on a cloudless day that can bring back precise memories of qualia past. [Ha! I write 'precise memories', and Google helpfully underlines the word 'precise' with a green wężyk, suggesting 'precious memories'.]

Just for a moment I hold the memory and it is exactly like being there again - and then the memories evaporate. But they were real, fragile.

We remember some things and not others; people, places, fragments of conversations, sights, smells, sounds, tastes and sensations - but not all. Our memories would physically be unable to store every single memory that has accumulated since infancy. So what factors determine which qualia are stored - or is it that they all they all stored, just awaiting the trigger to release them? I would not have recalled the Cologne badge had I not recalled the Polanica Zdrój badge, a memory triggered by seeing a palace in the park, a sight I'd seen many times before - but not on a day with the right weather conditions to trigger that particular memory.

Then there are the unbidden, untriggered memory flashbacks. Memory hiccups. These are even harder to explain. Especially when qualitatively they are like ones from my life, yet evidently not from it. I've written about this phenomenon before, and it's one I'd like to learn more about, indeed, it is becoming a lifelong quest. Something that affected me as a child and as an adolescent.

Science has yet to get a full understanding of how memory works in conjunction with consciousness; there's that memory into which we reach to recall what eight times seven is or who the minister of the environment in the last government was. Memory of facts is at the core of what our brain is known to do, but perceptual memory is elusive.

What makes it all the more interesting is that over the course of nine years, we shed every single molecule in our bodies, from inside cells, from inside bones, organs - they are replaced by new ones, even as we age - and yet memory abides. The structures responsible for memory are constantly changing, shedding, replenishing - but the core of memory which makes me me and you you is retained. Those clear memories from 50 years ago survived more than five complete changes of molecules in my brain.

This time last year:
UK Number One in world Soft Power rankings
[One year on: UK slips a place, Poland up one to 23rd.]

This time four years ago:
First flight from Modlin

This time seven years ago:
Another cycle route to work

This time eight years ago:
PZL M-28 and Piaggio Avanti - Okęcie regulars


KrakowJosh said...

Michael, I read frequently but comment rarely, but these Proustian asides you occasionally allow us are always a delight. Just reading this reminded me of a moment a year or two back when a slightly metallic grey summer drizzle combined with the smell of a whistling kettle on a camping stove and shaving soap to transport me back to a family holiday aged three, somewhere in Devon, my grandfather (not so much older than I am now) lathering up to shave with a gillete safety razor - hitherto unobserved, my father being a remington electric man - whilst lurking in the background were the odours of bacon, sausage and eggs fried in margerine over calor, and the faint tang of chemical latrines further away.

And then cloth badges - we didn't call them that, and now memory fails - but, while they were never allowed on my infant school duffel coat, when I turned eight and got a parka the exotic destinations such as Kendal, Harlech, Kirkcudbright, Corfe, Tintagel and later, Rheims (which, lettering aside was identical to your Cologne, and which evoked this entire chain of memory refound), Geneva, Grenoble and Nice were all there to impress my schoolmates with my cosmopolitan meanderings. (Truth be told, I rathered envied many of them for going to Spain each year and returning nut-brown with ridiculous touristic novelties, but my current perspective is rather more appreciative.) Thanks!

Michael Dembinski said...

@ KrakowJosh

Nice. This is it - the numerous smells, battling for your awareness, the feel of the air, the sounds, combining to form qualia, which embed in your memory and become part of the intrinsic nature of what it is to be you.

Cloth badges - what did we call them? I remember Mr Watson, form teacher for class 3W in primary school, was a great fan of the Alps and would go there each summer, and return with more of these badges on his cagoule.