April 27, 2002

hawaiian shirt memory

This one’s going out, so please bear with.

Often times in techno-thriller movies they have a scene where the Big Suit busybodies are watching a blurry videotape. The guy in the mustache always squints closer to the screen, pats the techy-geek kid in a Hawaiian shirt on the shoulder. He jams his finger at a point on the screen, maybe representing a handpurse or monkey or whatever, and demands in a gruff voice, “Enlarge this section! I wanna see the fleas on the handpurse and read the brand name on the monkey!”

Techy-geek kid in Hawaiian shirt dazzles his finger across they keyboard and an enlarged shot appears on the screen. A few more keystrokes sharpen the details, and voila. Fleas.

And a cross-branded Klondike-Pennzoil Bar monkey.

Impossible. The original tape is as focused as you are going to get. The ‘sharpened details’ are not encoded onto the video, or else they would be represented as such during regular playback. You can’t get more detail from a less-detailed starting point.

Does the mind work in a similar manner? How can we forget things and remember them later? Let’s say you have a recollection of a history… say, a camping trip. Without outside resources (other people’s accounts, photographs, etc…) your memory of the trip is as detailed as it can get. But then, how do we remember things at later dates that we haven’t remembered before? The smell of pine boughs can suddenly transport you back to the experience more vividly than simply recalling the memory. The smell can actually trigger the feeling of the trip, not just your stored images of it. If you haven’t consciously called up that feeling since the trip, how come you are able to with a little nudge from the nose?

It appears there’s something more to the mind than just storage. …or, if the mind is just storage, it appears to store more than we can know. If it were just a videotape I could play my mind back, and be satisfied that everything the camera was able to capture appears on the screen. If it’s not on the screen, the camera did not capture it. The mustache can hound techy-geek Hawaiian shirt boy all day, he can squash out three packs of cigarettes in an overflowing ashtray, but he’s never going to extract more information from the tape than the tape captured. The limits are clearly defined.

But the mind seems to have different levels of detail; I am able to zoom in on a specific part of a memory and dissect it. This suggests that the mind is drawing from a much larger reservoir than I am conscious of. The potential levels of detail are not accounted for in a gloss recall of the event, and at times it seems the mind is only limited by the inability to concentrate on a memory long enough to see it to its end. It feels like I have infinite straws drawing from every soda fountain in the universe.

How much information is really stored in there? Thanks to solipsism we can never know. We can only know the memories that we recall; if we don’t recall it, we can’t know whether it’s there or not. Fortunately it is additive; you can keep recalling more memories but you can’t unrecall a memory. …but you can never know the limit of how many memories you can recall. That darned monkey of the mind is always grinding away, awash in colorful thoughts of Genghis Kahn and Tang and Dresden and other proper names that require capitalization. So long as new ideas are always being created you cannot claim to know the limits. It’s like the universe. It keeps expanding and creating itself at the four-dimensional edge. What’s the edge look like? What’s on the other side of the edge? We don’t know. We can’t know.

I think I see now why most philosophers can’t write a book that makes any damn sense.

As Rickrobot would say, “It’s all good.”