The faltering foundation, the fragile self

I’ve been reading Searching for Memory: The Brain, The Mind and The Past by Daniel Schacter, a professor at Harvard. I know. It sounds over-rich, dry perhaps, not exactly riveting. But actually, it’s both well written and compelling. Since the book dates back to 1996 some of the science is probably out of date, but since my ignorance dates back much farther back than that, it’s all to the good as far as I’m concerned. I’ll get to later books and articles when I can. The good news is that Schacter takes the subjective memory of individuals seriously and appreciates the exploration of memory by writers like Proust and artists like Israeli artist Eran Shakine.

In Shakine’s painting Hadassah (1992) he uses fragments of old photographs and text veiled by layers of milky white. “Says Schacter: “Shakine struggles with the seeming paradox that our sense of self, the foundation of our psychological existence, depends crucially on these fragmentary and often elusive remnants of experience.”

How fragile we are!

In an earlier chapter, Schacter describes the experience of a man called GR who suffers a stroke that damages the left thalmus of his brain. He can’t remember his occupation, his paintings, the books he’d been writing, the city in which he lives. He can’t recall any specific incidents from his life. He’s shown pictures and told stories, but he remains deeply depressed: they’re all secondhand; they’re not genuine memories. He stops creating because “he has no more self to express.”

About a year after his stroke, his doctors determine he needs a pacemaker. He’s given only a local anesthetic. Suddenly, lying there on the operating table, he remembers keenly, in all its sensory detail, a surgery that he’d had 25 years before. That memory, like Proust’s madeleine cake, triggers a whole lifetime of memories. He’s overwhelmed with impressions and sensations from his past and soon he begins to feel like the same person he was before the stroke.

An unusual case, Schacter says. Neurosurgeons called it the “petites madeleines phenomenon.”  But what it reveals is how our sense of ourselves depends crucially on the subjective experience of our remembered pasts.

I’ve still in the beginnings of the book, but what is becoming clear is how tattered and faded our memories usually are, how much they depend on our present-day experience and interpretation, how much work goes into their reconstruction.
What kind of foundation is this for any self-respecting individual?

Surely not one built on rock. Shifting tides. Shadows.

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2 comments on “The faltering foundation, the fragile self
  1. paula says:

    An appropriate blog post, considering what happened in Tucson this week. Our mental health is more fragile than we think.

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