Memory Wonderland

Illustration from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

One of Carl Jung‘s favorite quotes on synchronicity was from Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. In a conversation between the White Queen and Alice:

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards. The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday–but never jam to-day.’

‘It MUST come sometimes to “jam to-day,”‘ Alice objected.

‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.’

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first–‘

‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’

‘–but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’

‘I’m sure MINE only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.

“What sort of things do YOU remember best?” Alice ventured to ask.

“Oh, things that happened the week after next,” the Queen replied in a careless tone.

So, the White Queen is being foolish, right? Maybe not.  She seems to be claiming that she has a kind of foresight. That may be close to what neuroscientists in this century started to believe – that memory is not really about the past. Memory works to help guide your future actions.

Eleanor Maguire at University College London, uses the White Queen as an illustration, “You need to project yourself forward to work out the best course of action.”

People with damage to their hippocampus can’t remember their past but also struggle with forward-thinking.

The White Queen may be prescient. Or maybe Lewis Carroll gets credit for prescience.

Does Alice remember Wonderland as a dream or did she forget it?

To a Lighthouse

Godrevy Lighthouse

“Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation,  and our ultimate connectedness to each other.”
– Virginia Woolf.

I have always found lighthouses to be Romantic places. I’m not alone in that notion. The first lighthouse I visited as a child was at Sandy Hook in my home state of New Jersey. I did not climb to the top. It might not have been open for that back in the day or there might have been a height requirement. (I was a little guy.) The second lighthouse i visited was a bit further south. “Old Barney”  is the nickname of Barnegat Light at the tip of Long Beach Island in New Jersey.

As a young man, I imagined that being a lighthouse keeper would be a good job of a writer. Isolation, few distractions, a wide view of the world. (In college, I actually tried to get a job as a fire tower lookout – but that’s a tale for later.)

“Inside my empty bottle, I was constructing a lighthouse
while all the others were making ships.”  – Charles Simic

When Virginia Woolf was 11, she took a boat trip to Godrevy Lighthouse. Virginia (born Adeline Virginia Stephen) and her family did summer vacations from London in Cornwall and their summer rental looked out at St. Ives Bay.

As an adult writer, she used those summer trips in her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse. She changed the location to the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides, Scotland.


I was assigned that novel in college and found it a challenging read. I liked the idea of a family going on their visits to the Isle of Skye (a great name for an island) and I suppose I tried to connect that with my own family’s childhood visits to the Jersey Shore. But it is a Modernist novel and I wasn’t quite ready for that at 19. In that college course, we also read Marcel Proust and James Joyce. I grew up on plot-driven, linear stories and I still prefer them in novels and in films. I guess I’m old school in my literary tastes. Those novels did not thrill me.

Modernist novels get into philosophical introspection, with little dialogue and (I’m not being insulting here) very little action. Her novel is full of thoughts and observations about both the recollection of childhood memories and adult relationships.

In 1940, Virginia wrote  “In retrospect nothing that we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us, as our summer in Cornwall,” The family went there for thirteen summers but after Julia, Virginia’s mother, died, they never returned.

I had to look online for a reminder of the novel’s plot and structure. It is an especially hard plot to recall since there is so little plot. One “action” is the inaction of a postponed visit to the lighthouse.

“To the Lighthouse, considered by many to be Virginia Woolf’s finest novel, is a remarkably original work, showing the thoughts and actions of the members of a family and their guests on two separate occasions, ten years apart. The setting is Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s house on a Scottish island, where they traditionally take their summer holidays, overlooking a bay with a lighthouse. In 1998, the Modern Library named To the Lighthouse No. 15 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.”

Reading about the novel, one person noted from a 2020 perspective that it is a good example of “social distancing.” Critics love the book and toss out phrases like “the vagaries of consciousness,” “a titan of modernism,”

book covers

I have attempted some of the other novels of Virginia Woolf since college. I tried listening to an audiobook version of Mrs. Dalloway this past summer. I don’t advise the audio format for Woolf. I love audiobooks but I think Modernist literature as audio tends to just wash over me. I get swept away by the stream of consciousness swirling in my head.

When the professor discussed Woolfherself in class, I was fascinated by her – much more than I was interested in her novel. That is still true.

“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”  –  Anne Lamott

I read Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours, when it came out and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. (I also enjoyed the film version of The Hours with its stellar cast including Meryl Streep , Julianne Moore , Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris)

The Hours is also a book that experiments with time, though not in the same way as Woolf. Like Woolf’s novel, it has three parts. Each section is the story of one day in a woman’s life. One is the story of Virgina Woolf (Kidman) as she begins writing Mrs. Dalloway. (Virginia’s working title for her book was The Hours.) A second plot is set in modern-day New York with Clarissa (Streep) at the side of her poet friend dying from AIDS and planning a party in his honor. Plot three is about Laura (Moore) who lives near Los Angeles in 1949 and is questioning her life rather normal suburban life.

Do the stories intertwine and finally come together? Yes. Do I love that kind of plot structure? Not really, but I must be in the minority because it is such a common structure in novels, films, and television today. But in Cunningham’s novel, the plot moves in a linear fashion with the three stories but takes time hops.  He follows Woolf’s 3 stories of 3 women who have all been somehow affected by Woolf’s novel.

It’s odd that this playing with time and consciousness annoys me because I am a big fan of time travel and consciousness and read and write about both things often. I also like the odd synchronicities in the background of stories and lives. For example, in The Hours, Clarissa on her way to a man’s apartment thinks she sees Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep ended up playing Clarissa in the movie adaptation. In the book, Clarissa later thinks it actually might have been Vanessa Redgrave that she saw on the street and Redgrave played Clarissa Dalloway in the 1997 film version of Mrs. Dalloway.

Lighthouses have been used in literature and cinema as symbols for a long time. They are built to withstand powerful storms and pounding waves and might to symbolize strength, safety, individuality, and obviously act as a beacon and guide and therefore as hope.

Though Woolf would never use it this way, they often appear as Christian symbols. Ben Franklin also would dismiss that kind of association. He wrote, “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.”

Your Brain As a Transducer

computer and brain
Image by ParallelVision from Pixabay

For about as long as we have had anything considered to be a computer, we have compared it to our brain. Since we continue to try to create artificial intelligence that is like a human brain, we alternately have used computers to try to understand our brains.

Is it a fair comparison? A computer has storage. So does a brain. Different computers have different processing speeds. Check on brains. We always talk about computer memory, and we talk a lot about our human memory.

Both use electrical signals to send information, though the brain uses chemicals and computers use electricity. The nervous system is high speed but the computer is faster.

What about those on or off (binary) computer switches? Our neurons also fire on and off.

Computer memory can grow by adding computer chips. The brain has plenty of memory space and it expands by making stronger synaptic connections.

But they are not really the same things. Computers are faster than brains and computer memory is more precise. But humans have more storage capacity. And computers still can’t nuance memory access like a brain.

A typical computer runs on about 100 watts of power, but a brain only needs about 10 watts. Super energy efficient.

The computer as brain metaphor has been the dominant metaphor in neuroscience, but now it has fallen out of favor. In fact, it might even have sent scientists in the wrong direction for decades. How about your brain is a transducer?

What is a transducer?  It is a device that converts variations in a physical quantity, such as pressure or brightness, into an electrical signal or vice versa. They are all around us – microphones, loudspeakers, thermometers, position and pressure sensors, and antenna.

The brain is still pretty much a mystery. It’s not a mystery like ghosts, but more of a mystery like dreams. For example, my fingers are right now putting pressure on my keyboard and moving a mouse and both movements and pressures are causing transduction. Analog is converting to digital. Words are appearing on the screen. The words – converted to bits – are flying through the air in my family room to a wireless WiFi point and then flying through a wire off to a server in the “cloud” that might just as well be in the real clouds.

But let’s back up to before my fingers started putting pressure on keys. Organic transduction via our sense organs — eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin — is happening. I can’t even comprehend what effect electromagnetic radiation, air pressure waves, airborne chemicals, liquid-borne chemicals, textures, pressure, and temperature are having on my writing right now. Electrical and chemical activity in my brain is somehow sending those words in a reasonable order down to my fingertips.

Thank you evolution for all the forms of transduction we possess. And thanks for most of the forms of transduction that humans have invented and are still inventing.

There are still some missing transducers. I can’t connect to plants or the universe. I know there are those who say via things like ayahuasca that they can connect to the unseen. Religions all seem to offer connections to a transcendent reality. Neither path has worked for me.

Let’s see if transduction theory catches hold and leads to a better understanding of the brain or the universe.


You Must Remember This

Photo by David Matos on Unsplash

When someone says, ” You must remember this,” they are asking you to access your long-term memory. Maybe you remember the event. Maybe not. When someone says, “I just told you that two minutes ago,” they are telling you that your short-term memory seems to have discarded something they told you.

The older my family, friends, and I get, the more interested I become in how memory works. In particular, I want to know how and why we lose memories and if there is anything I can do to help retain them.

I wrote elsewhere about the three stages of memory, but the stage that interests me here is short-term memory.

Brain science came up with the analogy of how memory works by comparing it to how computer memory works. It’s a useful comparison, but flawed.

Short-term memory is like your computer’s RAM (Random Access memory), which provides working space for short computations. You reboot the computer and it’s gone.

Long-term memory is like your computer’s hard drive, where data is stored permanently. Well, we all know that hard drives fail and so do brains and sometimes they lose some data or just totally crash.

With the advent and rise of artificial intelligence and robots, we have confirmed just how phenomenal the human brain is and that there are things it can do that probably will never be done artificially. That’s not to say that computers can’t do some things – like math calculations – better than a human brain.

With all the research, we still don’t fully understand exactly how memory works or where memories are stored.

Short-term memory (also called working memory) is critical to all of it. I feel like my working memory isn’t working that well. For example,  I discovered about halfway through the writing of this article that I had written an earlier piece here about forgetting what I have already written. There is a kind of circular humor to this that I would laugh at if it wasn’t scary.  I’ll give myself a pass because I write a lot online here and elsewhere but, yes, I forget. I have a friend that is a pretty big deal author and he admits that if you ask him about his early novels he has forgotten much of the plot.

I had found research that we could only store seven pieces of information in short-term memory and wrote about it, but this week I found newer research that only four pieces of information can normally be remembered at one time. Things are getting worse.

The label “short-term memory” has been used for a longer time than “working memory” which was coined in the 1960s. I suspect the latter term emerged along with the idea that a computer is like a brain.

It does appear that working memory also organizes and manipulates items.

Search on memory enhancement topics online and you will find many, many results. There is no shortage of supplements that are supposed to improve memory. I see TV commercials and online ads for these all the time. I have tried a few and my unscientific results are totally inconclusive.

Here is my collected possible wisdom on things that might help your memory, particularly that critical short-term memory stage. many of these things are good advice for being healthier in general. Maybe that is the answer. Be healthy overall and your memory will be healthier.

  • Eat a healthy diet high in unprocessed foods and low in processed foods and sugar. The Mediterranean diet is often given as being close to that.
  • Get proper sleep. What’s “proper?” I see 7-8 hours mentioned most of the time. Researchers who found that we can remember about 4 bits of information at a time, also found with a lack of sleep that number decreases to 1 or 2. During sleep, your brain consolidates memories and literally repairs and creates new brain cells. It seems that this is when some memories move from short-term to long-term.
  • Regular exercise helps memory. This can be as simple as 20 minutes of walking or yoga.
  • Mental stimulation is also important. Some people advocate “brain games” like sudoku, crossword puzzles, chess, etc. The one thing that I keep reading is that this mental activity needs to be “novel.” That means that doing the same things regularly isn’t as useful as introducing new things. That’s why you’ll find suggestions to learn a new language or a musical instrument. Those are very big things to take on but variety seems to be important.
  • Avoid things that drain the brain. Stress is a big one and that’s not easy to remove from your daily life.

    If supplements don’t seem to help you, and you can’t do the Mediterranean Diet, consider a few foods that are thought to help memory.

  • Eating some chocolate sounds like a great food choice for memory improvement.  There are brain studies that show the benefits of cocoa for general cognition, attention, processing speed, and working memory. Dark chocolate has the most brain health benefits.
  • But be careful because a lot of chocolate candy is full of sugar. You should definitely minimize white sugar which increases brain inflammation, damages neurons and alters your brainwave patterns.
  • Ginger is a traditional way to treat memory loss and dementia.
  • Caffeinated beverages improve both short-term and long-term memory and reaction times.
  • Drink lots of water. I have read that not only are most Americans are sleep-deprived but also a majority of us are chronically dehydrated. Even mild dehydration causes measurable brain shrinkage.
  • Ginkgo biloba is one supplement I have tried because it has long been reported to significantly improve short-term memory. I was looking for improvement and couldn’t measure that but maybe the positive effect was that my memory didn’t decline while taking it.
  • The other things that I find written about and included in my of those supplements you can buy are things I can’t endorse due to lack of evidence or personal experience. Those substances include Magnesium L-Threonate (not magnesium sulfate), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and other omega-3 essential fatty acids (often as fish oil), curcumin (which is in tumeric), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, more than Panax ginseng AKA Asian ginseng).

I was surprised to see nicotine as a cognitive enhancer since smoking is such a horrible thing, but these studies were with nicotine ingested apart from smoking which appears to be safe.

Recreational drugs and alcohol in any excess hurt short-term memory. Prescription drugs that may be necessary for people to survive day-to-day can have negative side effects on memory. Anti-anxiety drugs, narcotic painkillers do all kinds of bad things to brain chemistry.

You probably can’t do all these things consistently. I have tried to improve my sleep in all kinds of ways, but I have sleep apnea, so 8 hours of sleep is only about 6 or 7 hours of quality sleep. If my brain isn’t getting adequate oxygen while sleeping, I am also losing brain cells in the hippocampus.

And there are lots of little tips for memory. Avoid multitasking. Try meditation to improve focus. Write things down rather than typing them.

This is a fairly long post for this blog. If you made it this far, do you remember how it started? Yeah, I know. Memory is a harsh mistress.


Revise and Relive Your Past

Image by chenspec

I just finished reading The Midnight Library, a novel by Matthew Haig. In this story, a woman, Nora, is given the opportunity to revise some of her life choices. The opportunity comes on a night when she attempts suicide and she finds herself in a library managed by her beloved childhood school librarian. This library, where it is always midnight, is between life and death. It has an infinite number of books filled with the stories of her life if she had made decisions differently. By choosing another alternative path from her “Book of Regrets” she can try to find the life in which she’s the most content.

The opportunity sounds great but – no real spoiler – most of her alternate life stories are not ultimately much better than her “real” life.

I also discovered this weekend Reminiscence, an upcoming science-fiction film, via a clever piece of promotion that had me enter a bit of information about myself and upload a photo which was then animated and used to create a short “memory” of mine. A false memory, of course, but then as my memory deteriorates, maybe I would believe it to be real.

One of the trailers for the film

The promotional campaign says that “Nothing is more addictive than the past.  Nick Bannister (Jackman) offers clients the chance to relive any memory they desire. Looking into other people’s memories – especially people who you become romantically involved with – can turn up unexpected results.

This is director Lisa Joy’s first feature film.  She is best known as the co-creator, writer, director, and executive producer of the HBO science-fiction drama series Westworld. She is married to screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, the younger brother of director Christopher Nolan. Sci-fi must be floating in their home as Jonathan is the creator of the CBS science fiction series Person of Interest (2011–2016) and co-creator of Westworld. He collaborated with his brother, on the adaptation of Jonathan’s short story “Memento Mori” into the neo-noir thriller film Memento (2000), and they co-wrote the scripts for The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and the science fiction film Interstellar (2014).

The film is written and directed by Lisa Joy and stars Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, and Thandiwe Newton. It is scheduled for release by Warner Bros. Pictures in the United States on August 20, 2021, and will also have a month-long simultaneous release on the HBO Max streaming service.

The film and the novel share a pretty universal idea that if we could go back into our past memories and select a point of departure, we could lead a better life. Change the college you attend, change your major or your career, pick a different spouse or no spouse at all, have children or don’t have children. There are so many possibilities.

You can’t change anything without changing everything. You change your college choice and your major might change and so your career changes and also the people you meet and where you live and so you end up marrying someone else or not getting married in that life. Maybe your life is longer. Or cut short.


Feeling Pensive and the Pensieve

The end of a year and the beginning of a year is a time when it would not be unusual to be in a pensive mood.  The word is defined as being engaged in or reflecting deep or serious thoughts.

Like many of you, I tend to review the year in late December more intensely than at other times of the year. This year I found myself looking into photo albums (the physical kind) at my life and the lives of my now-grown sons.  Objects – like photos and journals – are objects that can evoke strong memories, both good and bad.

A “Pensieve” is something from the fiction of Harry Potter’s literary world.  My wife and I went to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida, and on the walk through their Hogwarts, we saw a Pensieve.

A poor photo I took of the Pensieve in Dumbledore’s office while on the ride tour at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida.

That Pensieve and the ones seen in the film versions of the books look a lot like something I saw in my childhood Catholic church. The baptismal font that would be filled with water for baptisms of infants can appear in many shapes and styles from simple to ornate. Many are often symbolically eight-sided for eight days of creation and as a connection to the practice of circumcision, which traditionally occurs on the eighth day. Some are three-sided as a reminder of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These fonts are often placed at or near the entrance to a church’s nave to remind believers of their baptism as they enter the church since baptism was their initiation into the Church. In many churches of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, there was a special chapel or even a separate building for housing the baptismal fonts, called a baptistery.

“I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours  them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.”
— Albus Dumbledore’s explanation of the Pensieve

The Pensieve is a fictional magical object from the Harry Potter series of books and movies. It is a way to review memories.

Physically it is a wide and shallow dish made of metal or stone, that can be elaborately decorated or inlaid with precious stones. The Hogwarts Pensieve is made of ornately carved stone and is engraved with modified Saxon runes,Only the most advanced wizards use them and there are fears about their use.  It is filled with a silvery substance that appears to be a cloudy liquid and gas which are the collected memories of people who have siphoned their recollections into it.

By gazing deeply into it, memories can be viewed by the owner or from a third-person point of view by someone else. I could look into it and see your memories if you had siphoned them into the bowl. Gazing into a liquid and “reflecting” is obviously part of the symbolism here.

The “pensive” of Harry Potter’s world is a homonym of “pensive” with a wink at the “sieve” part which alludes to the object’s ability to sort meanings from the many thoughts or memories it receives, like an actual sieve.  “Pensive” comes from late Middle English and earlier from Old French pensif, from penser “to think” from Latin pensare “to ponder” and also pendere “weigh.”

According to J.K. Rowling,  the possible dangers of using the Pensieve relate to its power over memory and because someone else can relive your memories in every detail. That is dangerous if you have memories you want hidden. Pensieves are generally buried along with their owner’s wand for that reason.

Albus Dumbledore allows Harry to use the Hogwarts Pensieve. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, he adds thoughts to the Pensieve. The Pensieve reminds us that Snape and Harry are forever connected. Snape was in love with Harry’s mother, and now is bound to protect Harry.

The Hogwarts Pensieve does not belong to an individual but to the school and has been used by many headmasters and headmistresses. Their memories remain within it.  This forms an invaluable library of reference for the headmaster or headmistress of the day.

In the second film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Snape’s memories are taken in the form of his tears. Severus Snape is not known for crying or warm emotions, but he tells Harry to put the tears in the Pensieve so that he may see something of his past and connections to him.

The connection between the Hogwart’s Pensieve and its use and the baptismal font is a tenuous one. The connection between using that magical object and reviewing our memories with or without some object to aid us is clear.

Harry Dumbledore Pensieve
Dumbledore and Harry at the Pensieve as a Christmas tree ornament