Memory, nature’s gift or curse?

From the time we are born, our understanding of world is shaped and reshaped. Jean Piaget, a Swiss development psychologist and philosopher, once observed that “what we see changes what we know. What we know changes what we see”.  We each have unique experiences, and it is our individual responses to experiences that mould the lenses through which we perceive reality over time. Think back to the time when you were a schoolkid, the way you perceived the world, and how memory now provides you with a sense of who you are and your current view of the world.  At the same time, consider how your perception of the past has shifted. Do you still view childhood activities such as finger painting and playing in treehouses as fun now that you’ve experience so much else? Piaget’s comment reflects how the past influences you’re current and you’re current influences your past. If this is the case, can we live in a world where we can come to a complete understanding of someone else’s surroundings and view the world from their eyes? Nonetheless, the demands of life certainly necessitate that we need to have some form of comprehension in order to avoid conflict. Whilst the disparities in our view of various circumstances will always exists and cannot be overcome, through interpretation and exposure to multiple realities as well as ability to empathise and express humility, we are able to gather glimpses of truth.

Our past experiences where we formulate own personal views and opinions shape and filter the way we view the world. As the path that we walk is unique to each and every one of us, our perception is so too exclusive to our personal individual.  In Spies we become aware of how Stephen’s initially believes and follows Keith’s lead to the point that without Keith “telling him what to think, he’d stopped thinking about it at all”.  Isn’t this us all as children, naively believing whatever out parents or other authoritarian figures tell us to be true and what to and not to do? We hold our parents hand as we cross at the intersection and only when the green man appears, believing that if we don’t it is an “enormous crime”. This is only so, until some of us brave ones decide to take the lead and cross in the middle of street.  Stephen does exactly this and undergoes a transformation that leads him to emerge from the confinements of Keith’s sphere. Instead of conforming to Keith’s control on the various activities they undertake, he does what most children at his age start to do, which is to challenge and “[emerge] from the old dark world of tunnels”. As such, he starts to take initiative like many of us do, going out alone without Keith in the middle of the night on his own little “great exploit”.  From his own exploration, culminating in his eventual visit to the man in the “darkness”, he realises that their spying game-something the young boys saw as just a game, “simple and straightforward” could actually become “infinitely complex and painful”. No single person shares the same journey in life, the lenses in which we each come to view this world with is constantly being mouldered. As you and I go through life, we constantly draw on these past experiences to explain what is going on around us.

Furthermore, the accumulation of personal experiences means that on another level, our individual understanding of particular situations can change over time and as we mature. If say two people we to share the same pair of eyes but have two different functional brains, would their view of the world be the same? Unless your one of the few people with a photographic memory, chances are you’ll forget most of even your most memorable moments. Our recollection of the past is inherently unreliable and fallible as gaps are constantly being formed and filled with stories. Our current scenarios and state of mind influences the way we unconsciously chose to remember certain events.  Elizabeth Loftus a pioneer in Reconstructive Memory states how “people come to believe that things that never really happened”. As a guest of a documentary conducted by the National Geographic Channel, she demonstrates how by planting two people with false statements in a group of witnesses of a crime, new memories are able to be easily embedded and existing ones altered. Michael Frayn in his novel Spies, similarly recognises how our current selves and experiences can manipulate the events of past and as such he creates two characters that is of the same person- a younger ignorant Stephen and an older wiser Stephen. The older Stephen who is trying to “piece” everything “together half a century later” acknowledges how difficult it is to maintain an objective view of what happened, “remembering the order things occurred in” and ensuring that it is not being “over-written by hindsight”.  The malleability of memories often means that our awareness or interpretation of our past is constantly undergoing alterations, unable to provide an accurate representation of reality.

However, despite our inability to overcome the alterations that memory has on our past and present, our life revolves around the desire and need to have an understanding and a grounding of the views of other people. Humans are social creatures; we interact with each other, communicate and share ideas and stories. Whilst a true insight cannot be attainment, through the combination of careful contemplation, self-examination and empathy we are able to eclipsing a state of ignorance. People come together and share their extensive perceptual experiences and this enables us to learn of certain historical events. Through memoirs such as Night by Elie Wiesel and raw footages, we are constantly reminded of the horrors that transpired during the Holocaust, how he described it as being “everyone lived and died for himself alone”. We are inspired to feel deep sorrow and grief, giving us a discernment of such actions.  Consequently, we as a society come to accept that the Holocaust was an event that had widespread repercussions and invaded on the lives of countless victims and acknowledge that we collectively need learn from this harsh reality so it is not repeated. Feigning ignorance to these widely accepted realities can cause one to recede into insanity.

In its totality, society cannot hope to grasp a reality where everyone is able to comprehend and view the world with the same lenses as we have different experiences that result in different beliefs and attitude. Our conscience is constantly leaving out information that may be crucial. In order for individuals to perceive in an identical manner, this quality of life would have to be mitigated, thus destroying individuality. This does not mean that we are unable to perceive what other perceive, but rather we are offered glimpses of it that can only be observed through the arduous process of careful scrutiny.  Subjectivity arises because rarely do we spend the time of the effort, contemplating every step of our life, something that philosophers Plato, Socrates and Aristotle spend their entire lives doing.





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