Understanding Memory


It was an interesting project trying to distill a model of memory from the readings I have made on the subject. The memory data flows seem to have an order about them, some of the terminology stems from a past all but forgotten, but strangely familiar on the page – in a previous life I designed computers. What is missing from this representation is the temporal aspect of memory, a dimension to explore in another post perhaps. Another deficiency of this layout is the two dimensionality of the flow, it is clear to me that memory has more than two axis’, though how many would be a conjecture too far for me at this stage, perhaps ever. This diagram suggests that whatever enters the memory architecture through the sensory or episodic (or both) memory buffers may or may not find its way into the long term memory; research has shown that short term memory is reckoned to last not much more than ten to fifteen seconds

Memory should not be conceived as a passive process 1 it is an analogue. From what I understand all the events outside long term memory happen in ‘real time’. The computations executed in the central executive are fed by information retrieved from the long term memory and the episodic memory – that of the time/place/emotional response of an event (also coupled with what is termed the semantic memory, which is deemed the general knowledge surrounding but not directly associated with the event) and these combine to deduce a fresh response to the invoked memory, into the conscious mind. The information circulating within the building blocks – in a sense behind the mind – contrive to formulate, effectively, memories anew each time they are retrieved. Long term memory therefore becomes a freshly minted memory when (re)delivered to the mind. Whilst an obvious simplification, the notional aspects of functioning memory that I have described seem to hold up vis a vis the research I have made. But what if it goes wrong?

Nick Payne’s play “Elegy” which has been running in the Donmar Wharehouse in London has, as one of its central themes, memory. There are other narratives that are played out, but the one that I am most interested in, is of course, memory. The synopsis of the play is as follows:

The play is set in the near future and concerns three characters; Two women aged around sixty who are married to each other, having known each other for twenty years. The other character is a clinical medical practitioner. One of the two women develops a debilitating disease that affects the life expectancy and quality of life – we aren’t told what this disease is called. However in the near future a procedure has been developed to remedy the condition, although not without side effects, which is to implant a silicon chip into the brain (and some surgery to remove parts of the diseased brain). The outcomes of this surgery are very clear and certain. The patient will recover all their quality of life – they won’t become a ‘pissing shitting mess‘ and their faculties will be restored to their former capabilities. There is though one side effect which is that the patients memory of the previous twenty years will be excised completely. The responsibility to make the decision for the procedure lies with the patient’s partner who, because of the debilitating condition, has received “lasting power of attorney”.

The partner has therefore to decide whether to allow the procedure to take place, thereby restoring a normal quality of life, but by doing so completely removing herself from her partner’s memory.

I am very interested in this from two aspects:

  • The intensely emotional/ethical struggle of the partner to make that decision of course but by doing so (in the play it is clear that the procedure takes place) how the memory system is described. I will also be very interested in hearing other voices describe the story.
  • Considering the effect of the potential for ‘false memory’ to be employed to synthesise a history. My own ‘collection’ of false memories and research in that phenomena suggests that it isn’t a huge extrapolation to develop a set/series of memories. However I suspect that theory poses another very thick narrative layer of ethics that would confuse this play’s purpose. Something that I will consider though.

I now have a copy of the script and have read it a few times and I think, because it was written for the stage that there are limitations to the nuances that can be witnessed reading from a page. The London production is coming to a close and I have decided to ‘stage’ a private production, using performers from a local drama group. I have purchased the scripts and have recruited more than enough players from an open call to fill the parts. My initial thoughts are to rehearse the play, but allow the players to read from the script and I will record the performance which is likely to happen at a local Hall that I plan to hire.

1 – Foster J K (2009) Memory A Very Short Introduction New York OUP






2 thoughts on “Understanding Memory

  1. A grand plan that sounds very exciting. I’ve often pondered on this idea of ‘lost ‘ memory and stories about it. Just wondering now if the fictional stories are connected with wanting to return to an earlier time and ‘do it all over again but in a different way’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s a very strong echo of Dante’s Purgatory notion of the River Lethe, whereby the sinner drinks from the river and he forgets all his sins (gender decided by Dante). It might be very convenient to forget sins don’t you think? Both personal and corporate especially if you’ve never atoned? So doing it all over again, as you say, is potentially a very attractive option, but in the play there is no sense of that, it is, amongst other things a story about loss. The project will start in about three weeks, it’ll be interesting to see how it turns out.


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