Our perception of the passing of time is integral to how we engage with our broader reality, our lived lives. We know what has gone before through a catalogue of events in the past. We do our utmost to be present in the now and structure our lives for the weeks, months and years ahead. We divide up time, controlling how we use it through clocks, diaries, calendars and reminders. Yet when discussing time with Dublin based physciatrist Veronica O’Keane, it becomes clear that our understanding of time is dictated by an integral faculty that most of us rarely consider.
“The only way a human can experience time is through memory. The concepts of past, present and future are useful, but they really only exist in the conscious moment, and the conscious moment is our memory. The past is always in the present, and the future is always in the present.”
Which feels like a daunting place to start. The only reality is the present?
“As a concept, time is made up in our brains, because it doesn't really exist in physics, time is a combination of what happens, momentum, of life and living. It exists in the present through us sliding from past memories to formulate the present, and of course in the present we are always predicting and formulating our future.”
O’Keane’s book, “The Rag and Bone Shop, How We Make Memories and Memories Make Us” is an exploration of how our memories create our sense of self, how they are made, reshaped and inform how we think and feel. Her studies of those who have suffered broken and disjointed memories has enabled a greater insight into the way a person with normal memory processes makes memories.
“In order to understand somebody's memory, you really have to understand their developmental past and the major events and culture that shaped them. Everything you experience is real and gets imprinted onto your brain. When we're born, our brains are blank, scientists decided on that hundreds of years ago when there was a consensus that we aren't born with memory. Babies sensory systems are in overdrive, with experiences being flung into their brains, which is why we have to sooth and contain them. As we go on, we start laying down biographical memories when we become aware of ourselves, without that awareness that wouldn't be possible. Knowledge systems develop through the imbibing of core knowledge and our biographical memory develops through events. The way in which we shape our ideas is informed by the knowledge that we take in and the experience that we have in our lives. We can look at other people and learn from them, and intuit from them perhaps better ways of working things out for ourselves, but that's still memory. We only have our memory, we don't have anything else.”
Drawing from her patient studies, up to date neuroscience research and drawing on examples from literature and fairy tales, the book invites us to consider that memory is more fluid than we might imagine. If you’re picturing memories catagorised in some type of mental filing cabinet, think again. The complexities of how we store memories begins with how they are formed in the first place.
“There's a natural narrative in terms of person, place and time. For example, there was a princess (person), who lived in a palace (place), a long long time ago (time). It's always person, place and time. This format is the way that people have always recorded narrative and story and that's the way we record our own story and events.”
Through experiments in the 1980’s, scientists were able to establish that certain cells in the brain of a rat only lit up when they were in a certain place. In the last decade, it has also been established that the way in which the sense of place is recorded also gives us a sense of time, integrated together as a single memory and recorded as part of our biographical narrative.
“The old philosophers and introspective novelists like Proust intuited this decades beforehand, so it's implicit in the narrative format, but now we are beginning to untangle the mysteries in terms of the way memories are recorded in our hippocampus.”
That sense of narrative memory making takes us beyond cells, neurons and experiments. It invites us to consider how our life experiences are involved in the formation of memories and shape what O’Keane labels our biographical memory.
“Emotion is just as important in brain function as cognition. There's a very interesting anatomical structure in the brain in which imagery and visual things are more strongly connected to emotional experiences. Seeing things will make us feel more or less emotional. Some stimuli for most of us are neutral, looking at numbers for example, but looking at a house in the night time with a light on can evoke all sorts of memories. For some they may be cosy memories of security, but for others they may be terrifying memories of isolation. That's because we’ve had these experiences in the past and connected whatever experience we had with that particular image. That's really a function of the way we are hard wired. So many images that we see or sounds that we hear are connected to an emotion. The experience of that emotion is what makes it a strong memory. The more emotion is evoked, the more likely we are to remember it.”
That sounds all well and good if it’s a pleasant memory, but the adage that the strength of emotion felt will ensure the strength of the memory is greater implies that traumatic experiences are more likely to stay with us.
“If you're particularly emotional during the recording of an event in your memory, sometimes your sense of time gets displaced and you remain in the memory. That's very typical of people who have been bereaved, that they keep coming back to the time that they were bereaved. Nick Cave, the singer-songwriter, following the tragic death of his 15 year old son in an accident, said that the memory of his son was like an elastic band, although he was trying to live in the present, he kept being snapped back to the time when the memory took place.”
O’Keane points towards the example of Miss Havisham, essentially stopping the clock in Great Expectations, falling out of time as she is unable to deal with her trauma.
“That's really what trauma does, it brings us back in time when the event took place. So for people who are traumatised or bereaved, it's a natural process of trying to go back there to resolve the trauma in some way emotionally, but then as time goes by and as the trauma reduces in emotional intensity, they tend to move into the present.”
I’m sure most of us can relate, perhaps not to the extremes of the given examples, but to unwanted memories which we have felt unable to shake off which seem to be sporadically recalled and become lodged before we can draw ourselves slowly back into the moment. The emotional significance of the memory is obviously playing a part, but the process of storing them also plays a role in how we go on to engage with memories.
“What we learn during the day is stored temporarily and at the end of the day we can feel quite confused if we've had a very sensory heavy day and a lot of things have happened to us. A good night's sleep sorts us out, because the memories get sorted out, as it were, from the storehouse of memories, at the very centre of the brain where all the sensory information comes down, the hippocampus.”
The notion of storing memories whilst we are sleeping is about as far as most of us get in terms of our limited understanding of memory, although again, it’s not quite as simple as moving them from one filing cabinet to another.
“The new memories go back up to long term memory storage in the cortex. During that process, we are actually disrupting older pathways, because we make memories by association. So if I'm making a new memory, I don't make it from scratch, what we do is that memory gets latched on loosely to a past memory through a process of association. By that new memory integrating itself with the brain cells that are already laid down, we partially disrupt that memory. If we are dreaming about a situation that is potentially dangerous for us then we may even wake with that sense of danger, which is essentially what a nightmare is. If we look at what has happened to us during that dream, it tells us about what has happened to us previously.”
O’Keane invites us to consider that this process of storing new memories can awaken older memories through association, hence the previously mentioned experience of being drawn back to particularly emotional or traumatic times in our lives. But what can this tell us about ourselves?
“You don't have to be Freud to analyse your dreams, they're mostly pretty obvious, certainly the emotions that accompany the dreams are fairly evident. Look at what is breaking through unconsciously, why are you having those emotions? You're having those emotions because your memory is stimulating something that feels dangerous to you, or perhaps beautiful like making a connection to somebody, because that person is obviously stimulating emotions in you that are pleasant for you, so it can lead to happiness as well as a perception of fear.”
It’s here that we begin to scratch the surface of how memories can influence our lives beyond recalling a moment from the past. Even if subconscious, the emotions stirred by a memory tell us how we are feeling in the relative present. Through considering those emotions we are able to choose how we are informed by the presence of those feelings.
“We're operating at all sorts of levels, we want to keep ourselves happy but we want to keep ourselves stimulated and challenged. It's about understanding the moment as much as you can, in terms of your own memory and the way you want to live in the future, the way you want to be in the world.”
Rather than being static data or a series of quantifiable facts, what we remember is driven by our emotions. Memories are subject to change and renewal throughout our lives as we search for meaning and a sense of coherence. As malleable as memories are, it doesn’t infer any direct ability of control over what is stored or what we recall, although depending on our personality type, we may be more inclined to place ourselves in a certain time frame. Our life experiences will influence whether we feel the need to undo or repair the past, or envisage a better future, so there is cause for reflection when considering not only how we might understand ourselves to a greater degree, but also better ourselves.
“I think the happy news is that we can all change this. I think it's very important to interrogate the way in which we interpret the world. That has to be an ongoing issue for everyone in their lives. Sliding from the past, to the present, to the future, is a very useful way of planning our futures, but we also need to interrogate the way things have happened for us, learn from our mistakes and look to other people for knowledge and wisdom.”