The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: A Trailblazing Exploration of Consciousness, Memory, and How Our Sense of Self Arises
By Maria Popova
“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf lamented. “Looked at, it vanishes.” A century later, we may have rendered the notion of the soul unfashionable — arguably, to our own detriment — but the puzzlement at the heart of Woolf’s observation hasn’t left us. If anything, we’ve recontextualized it as the problem of consciousness and taken it to the neuroscience lab, where it has only grown more perplexing — for, as Marilynne Robinson observed in her magnificent meditation on consciousness, the usefulness of the soul, and the limits of neuroscience, “on scrutiny the physical is as elusive as anything to which a name can be given.”
One of the finest, most dimensional explorations of consciousness comes from mathematician turned physician and writer Israel Rosenfield in his 1992 masterwork The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: An Anatomy of Consciousness (public library) — a trailblazing inquiry into the nature and structure of consciousness, and one of Oliver Sacks’s favorite books.
Rosenfield, whom Dr. Sacks rightly celebrated as “a powerful and original thinker,” contextualizes what makes the question of consciousness so alluring yet so mystifying:
What we say and do often hides motives that we keep from others and even from ourselves. Modern psychology began when this observation, as old as the writing of history, was turned into a principle: that our thoughts and actions are to a great extent determined by ideas, memories, and drives that are unconscious and inaccessible to conscious thought; that unknowable forces determine our actions. Thus the study of the unconscious became the cornerstone of twentieth-century psychology. Consciousness itself was ignored, since after all elucidating the unconscious seemed to tell us so much. People came to presume that when they talked of their “memories,” they meant experiences and learning that were carefully stored away in their brains and could be brought into consciousness, or made conscious. But this was to ignore the possibility that memories were in fact part of the very structure of consciousness: not only can there be no such thing as a memory without there being consciousness, but consciousness and memory are in a certain sense inseparable, and understanding one requires understanding the other.
Human memory may be unlike anything we have thus far imagined or successfully built a model for. And consciousness may be the reason why.
One of the most remarkable aspects of consciousness, Rosenfield points out, is “its utter subjectivity, the uniqueness of each individual human perspective.” This makes our capacity for empathy an extraordinary feat, for it requires that we acknowledge the subjectivity of our own reality and accommodate that of another, and yet we remain by and large entrapped in our subjectivity. As the great physicist David Bohm memorably articulated the problem, “Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true.”
Rosenfield captures this paradox:
In this subjectivity, oddly, we nonetheless feel or believe we are experiencing the objective truth about the world, and we call that knowledge; we usually think of knowledge as something that can be understood and also transmitted from one person to another.
But this, Rosenfield cautions, seeds one of our gravest misconceptions about consciousness — the expectation that it is contained in specific units of knowledge or records, so to speak, of sensory experience, stored in particular areas of the brain. Although scientists have shown that specific brain tissues do respond to stimuli like shape, color, and motion, and neuroscience has made tremendous strides in the quarter-century since the book was published, Rosenfield’s critique of the broader limitations of such neurophysiological hunts for the seedbed of consciousness remains remarkably astute:
If one thinks about the ordinary human experience of being conscious, of being aware and alert to the meaning of one’s ongoing experiences, it seems unlikely that perceptions become conscious by these re-creations or representations in the brain, however complex they are supposed to be. This notion presupposes a static model of brain function; but consciousness has a temporal flow, a continuity over time, that cannot be accounted for by the neuroscientists’ claim that specific parts of the brain are responding to the presence of particular stimuli at a given moment. Our perceptions are part of a “stream of consciousness,” part of a continuity of experience that the neuroscientific models and descriptions fail to capture; their categories of color, say, or smell, or sound, or motion are discrete entities independent of time. But … a sense of consciousness comes precisely from the flow of perceptions, from the relations among them (both spatial and temporal), from the dynamic but constant relation to them as governed by one unique personal perspective sustained throughout a conscious life; this dynamic sense of consciousness eludes the neuroscientists’ analyses. Compared to it, units of “knowledge” such as we can transmit or record in books or images are but instant snapshots taken in a dynamic flow of uncontainable, unrepeatable, and inexpressible experience. And it is an unwarranted mistake to associate these snapshots with material “stored” in the brain.
This dynamic dimension of consciousness — or what Sarah Manguso has so beautifully termed “ongoingness” — is why our various experiences of time are so integral to our very humanity; it is how we’re able to transmute information into wisdom; it is ultimately what makes us superior to computers. Rosenfield writes:
Conscious perception is temporal: the continuity of consciousness derives from the correspondence which the brain establishes from moment to moment. Without this activity of connecting, we would merely perceive a sequence of unrelated stimuli from moment to unrelated moment, and we would be unable to transform this experience into knowledge and understanding of the world. This is why conscious human knowledge is so different from the “knowledge” that can be stored in a machine or in a computer.
What powers this continuity of consciousness is memory, that seedbed of our identity, and its dot-connecting capacity (which, lest we forget, is also the seedbed of creativity, perhaps the ultimate faculty that distinguishes us — so far — from machines). Rosenfield explains:
Conscious memory, like all conscious acts, is and has to be relational, and the nature of the relation is different from that in direct perception, although direct perception depends on it. The vital ingredient is self-awareness. My memory emerges from the relation between my body (more specifically, my bodily sensation at a given moment) and my brain’s “image” of my body (an unconscious activity in which the brain creates a constantly changing generalized idea of the body by relating the changes in bodily sensations from moment to moment.) It is this relation that creates a sense of self; over time, my body’s relation to its surroundings becomes even more complex, and, with it, the nature of myself and of my memories of it deepen and widen, too. When I look at myself in a mirror, my recognition of myself is based on a dynamic and complicated awareness of self, a memory-laden sense of who I am. It is not that my memories exist as stored images in my brain, conscious or unconscious; the act of memory is one of my relating to myself, or to others, or to past experiences, or to previously perceived stimuli. This is the very essence of memory: its self-referential base, its self-consciousness, ever evolving and ever changing, intrinsically dynamic and subjective. Indeed, perception in general, conscious awareness of one’s surroundings, is always from a particular point of view, and is only possible when the brain creates a body image, a self, as a frame of reference.
This experience of a cohesive self is also why wee are so profoundly disoriented by inner contradiction and conflict. But however trying such dissonance may be to our understanding of ourselves, the very capacity for it is what makes us human:
Confusion and understanding are aspects of conscious behavior, indeed they are states of consciousness, suggesting very different sets of relations between the individual and the world, and there is no way to grasp what they are without some idea of what we mean by consciousness. Computers, for example, which lack consciousness, do not become confused when they arrive at contradictory conclusions or when part of their “memory” is lost; it might also be said that they never “understand” what they are doing.
Rosenfield returns to the central role of memory in our sense of understanding — the world as well as ourselves:
Without memory we could never know what we have learned. The problem is that we have tended to think of memories as unconscious items that one brings to consciousness, not as part of consciousness.
Nor can we understand the unconscious processes of the brain without understanding consciousness. Our knowledge of the unconscious is derived from observations of conscious behavior, after all. The problem is analogous to the famous discussion in physic as to the nature of light: is it made up of particles or waves? With measuring devices that are sensitive to waves (interference gratings, for example), light manifests itself as waves; with measuring devices sensitive to particles (photoelectric cells), light manifests itself as particles. So is light particle or wave? It is neither; it is simply that we see it as one or the other, depending on the measuring apparatus. So, too, our conscious life suggests that we have memories stored in our brains, but when we try to find where or how they are stored we fail to find the traces of them, and some aspects of our mental life (dreams, for example) suggest that conscious and unconscious forms of memory may be quite different. Actually they are both part of a larger structure, and they manifest themselves in very different ways, depending on our circumstances. An essential part of that larger structure is consciousness.
In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten, Rosenfield goes on to explore how phenomena like time, language, and personality elucidate the mysteries of consciousness. Complement it with philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of identity, naturalist Sy Montgomery on how earth’s most alien creature illuminates the wonders of consciousness, and a beautiful animated short film about memory, inspired by Oliver Sacks.
Published March 17, 2016