A Short Piece

Memory Is the Mind’s Air

Memories are the conditions that make thought and finding patterns possible, but we should remember more than memorize.

Photo by Anita Jankovic

Memory is so critical to thinking that it is often ignored. Similarly, oxygen is so important to biological survival that it is taken for granted. It is possible for there to be memory without thinking, but not thinking without memory. This is because with memory, I can still mentally experience images and thoughts, even if I cannot connect them with logic into thinking. Without memory, even if I have a self, it will be impossible for me to meaningfully discuss that self, for I lack the mental material by which to define and explain what that self has gone through, experienced, and how that self has been understood by others.

There is no such as thing as “now,” so everything in time is a memory. Memory is a necessary precondition for any thought to be possible, and thus any activity that reduces memory is a threat to thought, as any activity that increases memory will possibly enhance thought (say computer games, crossword puzzles, and the like). This is not to say that someone who has a good memory will necessarily think well, for in addition to memory a person needs logic, critical thinking, and so on, but it is to say that without memory, the greatest thinker in the world will be incapable of great thought. The individual may have logical excellence, but the individual will not have material to connect that material into thinking.

Memory is necessary for systematic thinking, justice, to avoid hypocrisy, and so on. If I cannot remember what I did last week, then I cannot say if I am managing to be consistent with myself today. If I don’t remember what I did to someone a year ago, then I cannot say if I am or am not indebted to that individual in different ways. If I can’t remember that I told someone not to do x last month, I cannot know that doing x today would be hypocritical. Memory is paramount for morality: if I cannot remember that x is good, I cannot remember that I should do x; if I cannot remember that something terrible happened to a given person a few weeks ago, I cannot think to help that person today. Memory is also paramount for relationships: if I cannot remember what I said to my spouse, what my spouse did for me, what my kids like to do, and so on, it will be impossible for me to keep my relationships from devolving into a chaotic mess of random impressions. Feelings will be hurt, patterns will be missed, and hearts broken.

Without memory, ideas and images could still flash through our heads, and we would still be able to instinctually operate in the world (eat, sleep, etc.), but humans could not longer be ‘time-binding creatures,’ to use the language of Alfred Korzybski. We would be creatures that could only exist in the present: the past and future would cease to exist meaningfully. Yet since arguably there is no such thing as “now” (because the person is always moving instantly between the past and present), though in a way humans would still have a present, in another way, they wouldn’t exist in time at all. They would be in space, operating in response to whatever they experienced, but they would only be in space. As discussed in “On Words and Determinism” by O.G. Rose, though humans currently live amongst causality with the capacity to both flow with it as if drifting on a boat in a river and the capacity to redirect causality, without memory, humans could not be defined meaningfully from causality. Human activity and causality would be practically indistinguishable.

A powerful way we improve our lives is by learning patterns. Our lives are unexplored until we live them, and so we are always operating, to some degree, in the dark. However, by remembering that when we tried x, it caused y, and y caused z, etc., then when we have a chance to do x again in the future, recalling the problems of z, we will know not to do x. Sure, maybe “x is different this time,” but recalling the pattern, we’ll know we should be self-skeptical. In fact, remembering patterns seems to be our best if not only hope for improving our lives and avoiding past mistakes, especially considering that no matter how intelligent we are (and the vast limitations of intelligence, as discussed by thinkers like Taleb and Hayek), we can’t predict everything — experience plays a key role. But without memory, patterns will always evade us: our lives will live through us more than we live our lives.

A society that teaches people how to think but doesn’t help people improve their memory is a society that teaches people how to breathe while failing to remove pollution from the air. We often take memory for granted, acting as if people either have good memory or not, and certainly there are people gifted with memory. However, there are also people gifted in education, but we do not take this fact as reason to end public school.

That all said, a distinction is needed, for not all acts of recollection are equal: in my view, there is “memorizing” and “remembering.” Memorizing is when we absorb the material of a textbook to pass a test, per se, where remembering is where we recollect the entire collection of historic and individual facts in order to preserve the truth of a complex situation (perhaps memorizing is very “low order,” while remembering is more “high order,” to use language from “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose). Remembering requires memorization, but memorization doesn’t requires remembering, but in feeling so similar, we can fail to recognize all that we leave out when we merely “memorize.” And if our education system emphasizes memorization, we may one day cease remembering and fail to realize we’ve ceased remembering at all.

The mind cannot function without memory, but a mind that mainly memorizes versus remember is a mind that will think but not critically think, engage in “low order” reflection but not “high order,” making itself vulnerable to error. There is something about remembering that is “historically embedded,” while memorizing feels general, like it glosses over the complexities of the world for isolated data points that are never actually isolated in real life (To use Heideggerian and Deleuzian language, remembering feels like it “works with” the world, while memorizing feels to “force out” what it wants from the world). Remembering feels digestive and slow, closer to wisdom, while memorization feels consumeristic and fast, closer to knowledge, and though wisdom is not possible without knowledge, knowing doesn’t necessarily entail wisdom.

Remembering requires putting ourselves in what we recall, while memorization requires us only to recall the data of what we recall; in a sense, remembering “puts us back in the past,” while memorization “keeps us in the present while pulling the past to us.” Remembering has us go meet the memory where memorization has the memory come to us. As real empathy requires us to “put our feet in the shoes of another person” (not our shoes in the shoes of another), so remembering requires us “to put ourselves in another world” (the past), as opposed to us imperialistically using what we need from our memories while leaving the rest behind. Remembering entails more humility, a spirit willing to learn, and is a disposition that suggests we should do our best not to “slice up” our memories but visit them. Our brains are imperfect though, and its powers less as we age, so remembering requires incredible effort, and please don’t mistake me as saying that memorization is always bad (we must do both). Rather, my hope is only to draw a distinction between “memorization” and “remembering” in hopes that we will not confuse them and fail to use both well.

Critically, memorizing and remembering are not only things we do “to our past,” but ways of being “in our present,” for if I am someone who knows I must remember my life, I will pay much more attention to it now and try “to take it all in” (an impossible ideal, but we must try) — this is required if there is any hope of me remembering the present in the future. But if I only need to memorize my life, then I only need to focus on what matters to me now: my concern is not with trying to “take in the world,” but with “taking in subjects” (of focus). To use language from “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose, remembering is closer to perceiving and “holistic rationality”, while memorization is closer to thinking and “instrumental rationality.” Considering this, the “mode of recollection” I choose for my life is not only a matter that impacts my relationship to the past; it also deeply influences my relationship to the present.

In closing, memory is the mind’s air, and if we cannot remember what has happened or what we have experienced, even if we are great thinkers, our thinking will prove weak. We will struggle to live a happy life, for we will struggle to define what constitutes happiness and to protect it. But at the same time, if we merely memorize instead of remember, we will only ever “use” the past: we will not be transformed. And the longer we memorize without realizing that we are not remembering, the harder it will be for us to realize we never remembered at all.

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