Thinking about memory, association, and identification

A lesson in memory.

I showed up ten minutes early for a meeting this morning at Sweetish Hill, paid for coffee, took a cup and filled it half caf, half decaf, found  a table for two and hung my sturdy black leather jacket on the back of my chair. My Nikon was in the left pocket of the jacket. I thought to myself, “better remember your jacket when you leave.”  Matt Glazer showed up for our meeting, we dove into a focused conversation of less than an hour, said goodbye and both wandered off to our respective Fridays. 

I drove a few miles south and noticed on the left, as I turned onto Manchaca Road, that there was a truck with a piece of earth-moving equipment on it and a sign, “For Sale 44K.” I wondered if the price included the truck and trailer, and realized I hadn’t seen anything like that by the side of the road for sale by owner before. Another sign of economic instability, I thought, and thought I should take a photo and share it online, though I figured I couldn’t pull out phone or camera and get a shot before the light changed. Somehow my network of memories made an association: photo | camera | jacket pocket. Oops, no jacket. It was hanging on the chair at Sweetish Hill. I turned quickly around, headed north again, and called Sweetish Hill. The good folks there nabbed my jacket and held it for me, so all was good.

This left me thinking how the mind works. I spend more time now than ever watching and assessing my mental operations, influenced by Buddhism, and lately by the Gurdjieff work. Much of the visible wrangling of the mind is forming associations, like the association that began with a piece of heavy equipment for sale and ended with my jacket-saving realization. There’s also forgetfulness: having proactively realized I might walk off without my jacket (I know that I’m “absent-minded”), why did I not remember? The associations running through my head as I left my meeting were all about what was discussed and what’s next. It wasn’t cold enough to think about putting on the jacket. Somehow I wandered off unthinking, and who knows how long it would’ve taken me to remember, had I not made the association describe above?

I’m tempted to say something about how imperfect and error-prone our thinking can be, but the wonder is that our minds and memories work as well as they do. Memory is a mystery, no one quite knows how the mechanism works.  For many years I had complete faith in my memory, which I thought to be accurate. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to understand that memory is usually imperfect. I passed the “For Sale 44K” sign again and realized it didn’t look as I remembered it – I recalled a black on white sign, but part of the sign was orange. How many of my memories are constructed incorrectly? I have a reputation for good and accurate memory, but it’s more effective about some kind of memory than others. My wife can remember details about trips and restaurants that I’ve completely forgot, for instance, though I have a good memory for meetings I’ve been part of and projects I’ve worked on.  

Much of memory, I’m convinced, is about where you place your attention. My attention is often on my thoughts, in my head, thinking something through internally and detached from what’s happening externally. Hence “absent-minded”: the absent-minded professor stereotype is about sinking deeply into thought. P.D. Ouspensky, a student of Gurdjieff, had this to say about this sort of thing, referring to it as “identification”:

A man identifies with a small problem which confronts him and he completely forgets the great aims with which he began his work. He identifies with one thought and forgets other thoughts; he is identified with one feeling, with one mood, and forgets his own wider thoughts, emotions, and moods. In work on themselves people are so much identified with separate aims that they fail to see the wood for the trees. Two or three trees nearest to them represent for them the whole wood.

‘Identifying’ is one of our most terrible foes because it penetrates everywhere and deceives a man at the moment when it seems to him that he is struggling with it. It is especially difficult to free oneself from identifying because a man naturally becomes more easily identified with the things that interest him most, to which he gives his time, his work, and his attention. In order to free himself from identifying a man must be constantly on guard and be merciless with himself, that is, he must not be afraid of seeing all the subtle and hidden forms which identifying takes.

It is necessary to see and to study identifying to its very roots in oneself. The difficulty of struggling with identifying is still further increased by the fact that when people observe it in themselves they consider it a very good trait and call it ‘enthusiasm,’ ‘zeal,’ ‘passion,’ ‘spontaneity,’ ‘inspiration,’ and names of that kind, and they consider that only in a state of identifying can a man really produce good work, no matter in what sphere. In reality of course this is illusion. Man cannot do anything sensible when he is in a state of identifying. If people could see what the state of identifying means they would alter their opinion.