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Speaking of Memory

How do we remember what we remember?

Ágnes Heller (1929–2019) was a Hungarian philosopher, public intellectual, and outspoken dissident. A core member of the Budapest School in the 1960s, she later taught in Australia and the New School for Social Research in New York. Heller wrote prolifically in both Hungarian and English, on topics including ethics and political theory, literature and history. A prominent Jewish writer, she collaborated with the publishing house Múlt és Jövő (Past and Future) on several projects addressing anti-Semitism. This excerpt is from The Philosophy of Autobiographical Memory (Budapest:Múlt és Jövő, 2015), a volume of narrative nonfiction that explores how memory defines us, both on an individual and collective level.

—Jozefina Komporaly


A number of languages do not distinguish between anamnesis and recollection, that is, between the potential for and the object of remembrance. To put it differently, they blur together the ability to remember with what is remembered. Hungarian usage can be misleading in this respect.[1] Plato marked the difference between hypomnema (material memory, the importance of keeping a record) and mnemo (remembrance). Hegel used the term Gedächtnis to refer to anamnesis, and Erinnerung to denote the actual things that are recalled. But this is far from the rule.

Practicing anamnesis was much more important in the days before printing was invented. Homer’s epic works, as well as the Bible, only survived because people passed down the whole text through recitation. Secret information also had to be “kept in mind” by messengers. We remember; therefore, we are in the know.   

This is the reason why mnemotechnics, the art of developing and exercising memory, has played such an important role over time. Various methods have been developed to improve our capacity to remember. One of the best-known, illustrated by the story of Simonides of Ceos, was to mentally locate the objects of memory in an imaginary building. As Cicero tells it, Simonides, attending a banquet in Thessaly, stepped out of a building right before it collapsed. He was only able to identify the entirely disfigured bodies by recalling everyone’s place at the table. 

Even though memory development has declined in importance, it is still essential in certain professions. Opera singers must be able to remember at least ten parts from beginning to end. Ballet dancers are in a similar situation, as are, to a lesser extent, theatre artists and solo musicians, to whom prompters and music scores lend a helping hand. Memorizing can become a highly specialized act, based on regular practice and rehearsal. A singer, though fully capable of performing the role of say Aida, is unlikely to be able to memorize an epic poem that is similarly long.

As a child, I was fond of reciting poetry. I remember to this day the poems that I carved into my memory back then. I use the term carve deliberately here. Our language is haunted by this image, hailing from Plato, who compared our mind to a wax tablet, onto which memories are carved. When the tablet is shown to us or we show it to ourselves, we can recall everything that it had recorded. The philosopher argued that it was wrong or at least pointless to write anything down. Only that which is carved into our mind and soul counts as real knowledge. This metaphor of the wax tablet can be applied elsewhere. We could assume, following Locke, that this tablet is a blank slate or, following Leibniz, whom I also endorse, that the foundation for our talents and abilities is already carved into our personalities at birth.

Most people believe that it’s easier to carve things into this wax tablet in childhood and in youth; by the time we reach old age, there is little space left. Indeed, older people tend to remember the distant past better than recent events. This might also be because they aren’t interested in what’s happening around them—everything is a repetition, a has been, since they have already lived such a long life with so many experiences. Brain scientists, however, contradict this hypothesis, claiming that long-term memory has no boundaries in terms of capacity.

In my view, however, God has no memory whatsoever—those who are omniscient are in no need of remembering.

These days, any psychologist worth their salt can distinguish between short- and long-term memory. The processes taking place differ in the course of the former and the latter. It is crucial to stress above all that any recollection stored in the long-term memory has passed through short-term memory. As for what exactly gets stored and what does not is dependent on multiple factors, including genetics. Some people can immediately recall any random number (let’s say phone numbers), keeping “in mind” thousands at a time. In their case, all numbers “go straight into” long-term memory. Another, perhaps more important factor is the emotional saturation of experience. Those with a strong emotional content tend to be recorded as autobiographical recollections in the long-term memory. This doesn’t mean that we remember these de facto, but that they can be brought back from our unconscious or dreams, while other content stored in the immediate or short-term memory cannot be retrieved after a few days.

An important role is also played by the intellectual and spiritual orientation of the person in question. For example, if a housewife passionate about cooking asks a chef about some recipe, it is possible that she may never forget it. In such situations, the long-term memory stores the relevant information in the shape of pragmatic or semantic memories. The voluntary confirmation of short-term memories can also often lead, involuntarily, to them being stored in long-term memory. Back in my school days, if I was preparing for some history test about the conflicts between the Romans and the barbarians, knowing my difficulties with remembering names, I just kept repeating “Vercingetorix” all afternoon. The next day, I got an A. Indeed, I haven’t forgotten this name to this day, though I’ve hardly thought about him in all these years.  

Cases where one deliberately stores information in the long-term memory are also common. In such conditions, we tend to do what I unwittingly did with Vercingetorix: repeating a name, a number, a line, or a thought. Let’s say we come across a really witty sentence and don’t want to forget it. We read it over and over again, repeating it. As for a musical motif we’ve just heard, we are likely to keep humming it. If we really want to ensure that we remember an experience, however, we redirect it from our short-term to our long-term memory. This is most common in the case of semantic and pragmatic memory, but it can happen in autobiographical memory, too, though very rarely. The reason why this is so rare is that we are unable to repeat experiences at will in a simultaneous fashion.

The temporal dimensions of short- and long-term memory are strikingly different, as indicated by the reference to time in their denomination. Walter Benjamin claims that in front of God there is no difference between long- and short-term memory. In my view, however, God has no memory whatsoever—those who are omniscient are in no need of remembering.

In both cases, the system of reference is the present, as we remember in the here and now. It is in the present that we remember that we used to remember in the past and that we’ll remember or have to remember in the future. It is in the present that we ask questions such as: “Do you remember?”, “Don’t you remember?”; invite someone to “remember!” or “forget it!”, “make a note of this or that!” or “forget this or that!” The past of short-term memory is yesterday or the day before yesterday, its future is tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. If somebody asks me to explain in detail what happened yesterday, I understand the question and try to respond. I may spend twenty minutes listing the various events and activities, albeit in an abbreviated form. In case someone asked me the same thing about the same day two months later, my answer would most likely be “no idea” or “don’t remember.” This is the case when nothing or very little of that day’s events had slipped into long-term memory. In order for us to conjure up anything from the events of a day in which nothing happened, we need external prompts or reminders.  All writers of detective fiction use this device.

Agnes Heller in Tel Aviv, 2011. | Photo credit: János Kőbányai.

Last autumn, I spent time in at least twenty hotels. Typically, a day after checking in, I can recall my room number without looking at the keys, and find the right door in the corridor without looking at the arrows. This means that both my semantic and pragmatic memory work perfectly. As soon I leave the hotel, however, I tend to immediately forget the room number, and often enough, the name of the hotel as well. For me to recognize the hotel at a later stage, something has to make its way to the realm of long-term memory. In such cases of recognition, the dimension of the past also changes, switching from yesterday or the day before yesterday to “once upon a time.”

Reminders play an important role when it comes to short-term memory. I have already mentioned repetition. When we were students, we had to pass an exam in Finnish language, which we hardly spoke. What did we do? Two or three days before the test, we consulted our Finnish language books and memorized what we needed to know. We also mugged up the entire Hungarian version of the long Finnish text we had to analyze and translate. We did fabulously well and then promptly forgot everything. Nothing whatsoever had seeped through to our long-term memory. Today I could neither recognize the text nor any of the grammatical terms we had to deal.

Memory is a precondition to all knowledge.

Let me return to the question of temporal dimension. In the case of short-term memory, we are looking at yesterday to the day before yesterday. What we can recall from the day before is exceptionally important from the point of view of the present and of the future. There are always implications regarding the near future (I have to do something, I have to pay attention to something, I mustn’t forget this, that or the other). The temporal dimension of long-term memory is the past and also the future. I’m likely to “make use” of separate memories in childhood and adulthood, and of yet another batch under different circumstances. This isn’t only the case in autobiographical memory but also in semantic and pragmatic memory. Should we find ourselves in conditions of war, it is extremely important to be able to ready our weapons at once. Should we immerse ourselves in the study of a scientific matter, it is essential to remember the thoughts that had preoccupied us previously in relation to this topic.

Every time I find or discover something I need in my preconscious and subconscious long-term memory, to use Christopher Cherniak’s term, I basically “copy” it from my long-term to my short-term memory. With Proust, we have already arrived at the two fundamental ways of triggering the ability to remember: voluntary and spontaneous, that is involuntary, memory. In the first case, we can also be dealing with a teleologically motivated control of long-term memory. This basically means that I want to remember something for a reason. I’m searching for information in the library of my consciousness. I know what I’m looking for, or at least I have an inkling to that effect. I may even know where to look, or perhaps not. Perhaps I’m delivering a talk on some topic in philosophy. I remember that I had written about this or at least I was thinking about writing something. When, where, what? It would be important to know!

Or perhaps I meet some people, who introduce themselves to me. I vaguely remember having been told something about them. I was told a story about them. Did they appear in a favorable light or not? Anyway, who was the person who mentioned them to me? Was that somebody reliable or not? It would be so important to remember this! In what context could I remember these details? Could this be connected to place, time, perhaps a friend? I’m getting restless because I feel that I should remember what I can’t and I know that this information is available somewhere, stored away in my memory. I keep rummaging in the library of my consciousness until I give up or finally (Eureka!) discover it and find it. Now I know who it was and what they had said. It was worth the trouble, I have a handle, I was given some useful directions and can now proceed much more wisely.

Involuntary triggers play a decisive role in autobiographical memory. Proust didn’t only represent but also reflected on this topic. A spot of color, a scent, a tune, a landscape, or a movement can unwittingly open the floodgates. Yet Eureka didn’t refer to the biography of Archimedes but to his discovery of a law of nature, triggered by chance, akin to the childhood and adolescent stories recalled by Proust. Most probably, Archimedes wasn’t actually taking a bath at that moment but involuntarily remembering what had happened when he was taking one earlier. Thus, an instance of accidental memory turned into knowledge.

Memory is a precondition to all knowledge, though we cannot say this about involuntary memory despite the claims to the contrary by scientists, such as Einstein. This random and haphazard stimulus, this involuntary snippet of memory, be it a feeling, an image or a sound, considered inspiration by poets, intuition by scientists, and enlightenment by religious orders, is capable of triggering an entire avalanche of new knowledge, beliefs, and theories.    

[1] In Hungarian, the word ‘emlékezni’ (to remember) is used for the act/ability of remembering and ‘emlékezés’ (recollection, remembrance) for what is actually being remembered.

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