A while back, I listened to the unabridged audiobook by Jonah Lehrer Proust Was a Neuroscientist. I have to say this was one of the densest books that I have ever read (er, listened to). Lehrer is a graduate of Columbia University, has studied at Oxford as a Rhode Scholar, and has worked under a famous neuroscientist. So, his credentials and intellectual prowess are extremely impressive. In this book, Lehrer examines discoveries about the brain made by 8 different artists (e.g., Cezanne on vision/sight, Proust on memory) that preceded findings by neuroscientists by many decades. He draws connections between these artists and the findings of neuroscience in an elegant and detailed way.
Now, it is obvious that Lehrer is a brilliant guy. He was quite young (26, I believe) when Proust Was a Neuroscientist was published (2007). He is also the author of How We Decide (2009) which I blogged about and absolutely loved.
Proust Was a Neuroscientist, while fascinating, is less accessible than How We Decide. If the topic sounds interesting to you, then I recommend that you read it…but be prepared for its density. I do want to talk about is one aspect of memory that Lehrer elucidated in this book that I found rather funny and ironic.
Unlike most people during his time (and even for decades after), French novelist Marcel Proust viewed memory as a process and not a repository. Thus, we are very unlike computers in this way. Our past experiences are not etched within our brains as if in stone. The encoding of information, even in the very moment, is filtered and shaped by many variables (e.g., our attention, our emotions, whether we are hungry or injured). Similarly, our recollection of events, experiences, and information becomes further reshaped by later experiences, our mood, suggestions, situational factors, and so on. Thus, every time we remember an experience, the recollection is re-encoded and changed during the process.
So, what is the best way to keep our memories pristine…to keep them more pure and less tainted by the host of variables? Why, it is to not recall those memories! This is the irony about memory that I find so amusing and thought it was worth sharing. Remember, preserve those great memories…don’t ever remember them again!
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