Yesterday, I wrote about the ways in which the tip-of-the-tongue experience is helping cognitive scientists to learn how the mind stores and retrieves information.
When we struggle to remember something, we will sometimes begin with the conviction that we remember a fragment, such as the first letter of a name.
This phenomenon demonstrates to researchers that information about a word or other kind of memory is likely to be stored in different locations in the brain: aural sound of a word in one location, meaning in another, and spelling in yet another. Somehow, they coalesce regularly and rapidly. But sometimes they don’t: we might know the meaning of a word that is trying to surface, but the word itself remains in hiding. The knowledge that our unconscious mind knows more than we consciously know, and knows it sooner than we know it, is an eerie thought. It brings to mind Antonio Damasio’s succinct statement of the tardiness of conscious knowledge: “We are always hopelessly late for consciousness” (127).
And sometimes the process of remembering leaves traces, clues of its mysterious origins and ways, demonstrating the imbalance between conscious and unconscious thought and proving once more that the unconscious mind knows more and knows it sooner than the conscious mind. And this is what really fascinates me: becoming aware that some pre-conscious part of my brain seems to be trying to tell me something, to throw little hints my way until the memory surfaces and I experience the eureka moment.
“I hate my birthday!”
A memorable instance of this kind of pre-conscious associative process occurred a few years ago when I was traveling with a friend in Europe. During our stay in Italy, we visited Francesco, a friend who lived near Padua. The three of us had a terrific visit. We chatted at his apartment for a while, and then Francesco showed us a printing press where he and some friends edited an anarchist newspaper.
Our next destination was the South of France to see friends in Montpellier. As the train passed through Provence, I gazed out the window at fields of poppies and lavender. I became aware that there was a memory that was trying to surface in my mind, but when I tried to remember what it was, I drew a blank. I knew that it was something that had made an impression on me, that it was somehow important to me. And whatever it was, it was tinged with sadness.
As I watched the colourful fields pass by, wondering about the elusive memory, the following phrase occurred to me:
heavenly fields of poppy and lavender
This phrase gave rise to this sentence:
But the people in the sky really love /
to have dinner and to take a walk with you.
I knew this to be from an elegy for Frank O’Hara by Ted Berrigan.
Again I made an effort to recall the mysterious memory, but no other thoughts arrived. I still had the feeling that a memory wanted to surface. Then the feeling saddened and more words arrived:
I hate that dog.
I remembered that sentence as the last line in an elegy for Ted Berrigan by Ron Padgett. The poem describes hearing a dog bark in the night and feeling the emptiness of Ted’s absence.
I thought it curious that both lines that surfaced in my mind were elegies for poets. Somewhere in my brain there must be a file with the label “elegies for poets of the second generation New York school.”
The clues from this mental file were leading me toward my memory, and the last clue, “I hate that dog,” was the catalyst that allowed me to remember what had been trying to surface:
I hate my birthday.
On remembering these words, I experienced a eureka moment: this was the memory that had been lurking in the depths of my unconscious! It was also a poignant moment when I remembered what had occasioned Francesco’s speaking those words.
During our visit with Francesco, I showed him a cd that I had bought in Paris of the French anarchist singer Léo Ferré. Francesco told me that Léo Ferré had died several years before, in 1993. I was surprised and saddened, because although I didn’t know much about Ferré’s life, I had come to love the music of this “anarchanteur.”
Francesco then spoke of an Italian anarchist singer, Fabrizio de André, who had died just a couple of years earlier, the date of his death unfortunately coinciding with Francesco’s thirtieth birthday. So great was Francesco’s admiration for De André that after the singer’s death, he hated his birthday.
So the original elusive memory did eventually surface, but it took a circuitous path involving lateral associations. It was as though my brain were tossing little clues along the path: it knew what I didn’t know, and it seemed to be in dialogue with me, coyly leading me in the right direction.
It seems to me that the memory that “wanted” to surface was always the same memory: Francesco telling me of hating his birthday because De André had died on that day. I felt that this was so because of the eureka moment that I experienced when the memory finally surfaced. And the various memories that surfaced along the path to remembering that event were like stepping stones leading to Francesco’s statement about hating his birthday.
The first stepping stone was gazing at fields of poppies and lavender from the train and thinking of them as “heavenly.” “Heavenly” suggests the mythical abode of the dead, and the path that led from “heavenly fields of poppies and lavender” to “I hate my birthday” follows a certain logic having to do with remembering one’s fallen friends and hating something that one associates with that friend’s death. So the associative chain might look something like this:
lavender and poppy fields → desire to remember
desire to remember → heavenly fields
heavenly fields → heaven
heaven → friend’s death
friend’s death → hate things reminding me of that death
hate things reminding me of that death → hate birthday
If by chance you have actually made it to this point in my little essay, you may wonder at my meditating on this memory in such detail. If I do, it is because the more I find out about the workings of the mind, the more strange and wonderful it all seems. I find it so incredible that in our daily lives we make associations without thinking about them much. But if we stop to think about how the mind actually gets from A to B, things become very complicated very quickly!
There is just one more thing I want to consider. Earlier, I characterized the unconscious as having agency: it tossed little clues in my direction and coyly led me in the right direction. I know that it’s misleading to personify my unconscious that way. After all, is it really accurate to suppose that my unconscious “knew” the identity of the memory that was “trying” to surface and “concocted” a logical path of stepping stones for me to follow? If that were true, then why would my unconscious “withhold” the memory and tease me with clues?
It seems more likely that my conscious mind started guessing about the identity of the memory, shooting out trial electrical impulses to neurons that might be associated with the memory of Francesco hating his birthday. After all, the fact that the emotional aura of the memory was present from the beginning means that I knew something about the memory, just not the memory itself (perhaps similar to knowing that a word you’re trying to remember starts with the letter “b”). As Lehrer points out in the essay that I cited in Part I, the mind “makes guesses based upon the other information that it can recall.”
In other words, the meta-cognitive knowledge that I wanted to remember something was unable to link directly to “I hate my birthday.” Somehow, the direct link at that time was too weak. However, there were stronger links from “I hate my birthday” to the indirect categories that I listed above.
So perhaps my conscious mind got to “I hate my birthday” by guessing along a kind of zigzagging path. That scenario is certainly less eerie than imagining an unconscious with agency, regardless of whether it’s beneficent or malevolent! But it takes nothing away from the strangeness of the mind’s ways.
As a tribute to De André and Ferré, below are links to videos of each in concert.
Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Heinemann: London, 1999.