Butterfly Memories

Recently I travelled back in podcast time and listened to an old episode of Radiolab that covered memory and forgetting. It may have been one of the most fascinating episodes I have listened to so far.

Human brains are incredibly fragile things. The other organs, such as the liver and heart, feel solid and strong. They are dense, rich collections of tissue that hold together firm like buckey-balls. But the brain, in contrast, is a very loose collection of neurons and gray goo, seemingly held together by magic. I had heard that the texture was similar to jello, so was quite surprised when I did feel one to find that it was much softer than expected. If it is like jello, it is like jello that is a few minutes shy of completing the firming process and is likely to fall apart in your hands if you try to pick it up. And somewhere in this crumbly wet mess that we call our brains is our soul. And our memories.

One of the parts that fascinated me in this particular episode of Radiolab was a segment about the frail nature of our memories. In the episode, they tell us that we remember things in context to our experiences before the memory recalls itself as well as our current lives and surroundings. And every time we remember something, an event, that memory is slightly altered depending on that moment’s environment. And so if an event happens that is forgotten about for 20 years and is suddenly brought to mind, that memory is, in a sense, more “true” than an event that has been re-lived over and over again through remembering.

Philosophically one could say that our collective moments don’t physically exist, except for the moment’s existence in our minds. So in a way, memories are like time travel. We are taken back to a moment in our past, and we experience again this moment in our minds. But every time we remember, every time we travel back in time, we are slightly altering our history and creating a butterfly effect through the subsequent memories in time.

So, in a Bill Murray-esque way, we can re-live the same day over and over again. Certain elements will stay the same. The same basic events will happen and the theme will most likely stay the same. But the devil is in the details. So will you change the past in a negative way? Or will you decide to re-live it to the fullest, learning piano and enjoying the company of friends?

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2 thoughts on “Butterfly Memories

  1. Beezy says:

    There is an excellent chapter on this subject in the book, “Proust was a Neuroscientist.” Fascinating stuff.

  2. yooniepie says:

    That is actually on my list of books to tackle this year! :-)

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