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How Memory Makes Us and Breaks Truth: The Rashomon Effect and the Science of How Memories Form and Falter in the Brain

“We are our memory… that chimerical museum of shifting shapes, that pile of broken mirrors.”

It is already disorienting enough to accept that our attention only absorbs a fraction of the events and phenomena unfolding within and around us at any given moment. Now consider that our memory only retains a fraction of what we have attended to in moments past. In the act of recollection, we take these fragments of fragments and try to reconstruct from them a totality of a remembered reality, playing out in the theater of the mind — a stage on which, as neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has observed in his landmark work on consciousness, we often “use our minds not to discover facts, but to hide them.”

We do this on the personal level — out of such selective memory and by such exquisite exclusion, we compose the narrative that is the psychological pillar of our identity. We do it on the cultural level — what we call history is a collective selective memory that excludes far more of the past’s realities than it includes. Borges captured this with his characteristic poetic-philosophical precision when he observed that “we are our memory… that chimerical museum of shifting shapes, that pile of broken mirrors.” To be aware of memory’s chimera is to recognize the slippery, shape-shifting nature of even those truths we think we are grasping most firmly.

Art by Cecilia Ruiz from The Book of Memory Gaps, inspired by Borges

Nearly a century after Nietzsche admonished that what we call truth is “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms… a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished,” the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (March 23, 1910–September 6, 1998) created an exquisite cinematic metaphor for the slippery memory-mediated nature of truth in his 1950 film Rashomon, based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove” — a psychological-philosophical thriller about the murder of a samurai and its four witnesses, who each recount a radically different reality, each equally believable, thus undermining our most elemental trust in truth.

As researchers in the second half of the twentieth century came to shed light on the foibles of memory, Kurosawa’s masterpiece lent its name to the amply documented unreliability of eyewitness accounts. The Rashomon effect, detailed in this wonderful animated primer from TED-Ed, casts a haunting broader nimbus of doubt over our basic grasp of reality — we only exist, after all, as eyewitnesses of our own lives.

All of these psychological perplexities arise from the basic neurophysiological infrastructure of how memories form and falter in the brain — something the great neurologist Oliver Sacks explored in his classic medical poetics of memory disorders, and something South African biomedical scientist Catharine Young explores in another TED-Ed episode, animated by the prolific Patrick Smith:

Complement with Neurocomic — a graphic novel about how the mind works — and the animated science of how playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, then revisit Virginia Woolf on how memory seams our lives, Sally Mann on how photographs can unseam memory, and neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin on how medicine’s most famous amnesiac illuminates the wonders of consciousness.


Bluets: Maggie Nelson on the Color Blue as a Lens on Memory, Loneliness, and the Paradoxes of Love

“To wish to forget how much you loved someone — and then, to actually forget — can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.”

Bluets: Maggie Nelson on the Color Blue as a Lens on Memory, Loneliness, and the Paradoxes of Love

“We love to contemplate blue,” Goethe observed in his theory of color and emotion, “not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.” This particular color — or, rather, this universe of hues — seems to have drawn after it more minds than any other, inking the body of culture with a written record of adulation bordering on the religious.

After my recent excursion into the color blue across the past two hundred years of literature, a number of readers pointed out that I had missed an invaluable contemporary addition to the cerulean canon. (I might say “somehow missed,” but somehow implies a level of surprise at the fact, and it is hardly surprising that when one spends one’s days with dead poets, philosophers, scientists, and artists, the living cease to be one’s forte.) I had missed Bluets (public library) by Maggie Nelson — a slim, splendid collection of 240 numbered arguments? meditations? incantations? about the color blue, about its tentacled reach into nearly every chamber of Nelson’s life and into universal questions of desire and destiny, compulsion and choice, the disorienting delusions of memory, the delicious delusions of love.

Color chart from the pioneering 19th-century guide Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, which inspired Darwin. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Nelson begins with the elemental consideration of what it means to fall in love with a color:

A voluntary delusion, you might say. That each blue object could be a kind of burning bush, a secret code meant for a single agent, an X on a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety but that contains the knowable universe.

She draws from the fact of blue — a physical phenomenon, rooted in the chemistry, biology, and physics of the material world — poetic truth imbued with what Rachel Carson called “an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves.” It is not uncommon for a passage to begin with a cool report of fact and end with an existential observation:

Fifteen days after we are born, we begin to discriminate between colors. For the rest of our lives, barring blunted or blinded sight, we find ourselves face-to-face with all these phenomena at once, and we call the whole shimmering mess “color.” You might even say that it is the business of the eye to make colored forms out of what is essentially shimmering. This is how we “get around” in the world. Some might also call it the source of our suffering.

Illustration by Anne Herbauts from What Color Is the Wind?, a serenade to the senses inspired by a blind child

Again and again, Nelson interpolates between the poetic and the encyclopedic, the cerebral and the sensual, emerging with something larger, something William James might call noetic:

But what kind of love is it, really? Don’t fool yourself and call it sublimity. Admit that you have stood in front of a little pile of powdered ultramarine pigment in a glass cup at a museum and felt a stinging desire. But to do what? Liberate it? Purchase it? Ingest it? There is so little blue food in nature — mark food to avoid (mold, poisonous berries) — that cautionary advisers generally recommend against blue light, blue paint, and blue plates when and where serving food. But while the color may sap appetite in the most literal sense, it feeds it in others. You might want to reach out and disturb the pile of pigment, for example, first staining your fingers with it, then staining the world. You might want to dilute it and swim in it, you might want to rouge your nipples with it, you might want to paint a virgin’s robe with it. But still you wouldn’t be accessing the blue of it. Not exactly.

Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that all desire is yearning.

Tender Blues by Maria Popova

With an eye to “the half-circle of blinding turquoise ocean,” Nelson writes:

That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it. To have seen such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless.

This question of agency — in life, in love, in the love of blue — undergirds the book as Nelson’s meditations on the color spill into a half-whispered dialogue with an unnamed, vanished lover, a Thisbe whispering to Pyramus through an impenetrable wall of blue. In the thirteenth fragment, she frames the central question that bridges her obsession with blue and the broader inquiry emanating from it:

At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my CV it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette. One of the men asks, Why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.

Invoking Goethe’s theory of color, in which the German polymath painted blue as apt “to disturb rather than enliven,” Nelson wonders about a color what we often wonder about the human heart:

Is to be in love with blue, then, to be in love with a disturbance? Or is the love itself the disturbance? And what kind of madness is it anyway, to be in love with something constitutionally incapable of loving you back?

Some of Nelson’s numbered passages shine a sidewise gleam on blue, the color itself absent as a subject but present as an aura around a state of being. Seventy years after May Sarton insisted in her stunning ode to solitude that “there is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” Nelson writes:

I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.

It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it? — No, not exactly. It cannot love me that way; it has no arms. But sometimes I do feel its presence to be a sort of wink — Here you are again, it says, and so am I.


Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions

If this dazzling, kaleidoscopic book has a primary focal lens, it is memory — or, rather, memorialization — and its dueling desires: the wish to remember and the wish to forget, the warp thread and waft thread of which writing itself is woven. (Lest we forget, “forgetting” is one of the three essential elements of creativity and memory is more an act of creative retelling than one of recording.) Reflecting on what writing does to the writer’s memory, Nelson offers a meta-meditation on her subject:

At times it can have the effect of an album of childhood photographs, in which each image replaces the memory it aimed to preserve. Perhaps this is why I am avoiding writing about too many specific blue things — I don’t want to displace my memories of them, nor embalm them, nor exalt them. In fact, I think I would like it best if my writing could empty me further of them, so that I might become a better vessel for new blue things.


But if writing displaces the idea — if it extrudes it, as it were, like grinding a lump of wet clay through a hole — where does the excess go?

I contemplate this where-does-it-go question often, in the context of the memory of feeling. Say someone has colored your entire world for a period of time. Say when you encounter them after another period of time has elapsed, you find yourself not only devoid of the feeling that filled you so intensely for so long, but unable to even retrieve the memory of the hue. Where has it gone? Where does love ever go when it goes? Nelson encapsulates this abiding question in a devastating metaphor:

To wish to forget how much you loved someone — and then, to actually forget — can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.

A dozen arguments later, in the context of another meditation, she seems to return to this heart-hollowing question and offers what might be there only consolation there is:

Look for yourself, and ask not what has been real and what has been false, but what has been bitter, and what has been sweet.

Perhaps, we come to feel as Nelson approaches the close of her two hundred and forty numbered sentiments, uncertainty will always envelop the question of what is real, and reality is only ever saturated in the present moment — all else is projection, interpretation, a tug of war between the creativity and choicelessness of memory and forgetting. Echoing Kafka — “Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost.” — Nelson writes:

That the future is unknowable is, for some, God’s means of suturing us in, or to, the present moment. For others, it is the mark of a malevolence, a sure sign that our entire existence here is best understood as a sort of joke or mistake.

For me, it is neither. It is simply the way it is. Whether this accident be happy or unhappy is probably more a matter of mood than anything else; the difficulty is that “our moods do not believe in each other” (Emerson). One can wander about the landscape looking for clues, amassing evidence, but even the highest pile never seems to decide the case.

Complement the uncommonly wonderful Bluets with Rebecca Solnit on how blue colors distance and desire, then revisit poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan on memory, the self, and the universe.


91-Year-Old Lebanese-American Poet, Philosopher, and Painter Etel Adnan on Memory, the Self, and the Universe

“The universe is itself the glue that keeps it going, therefore it is memory in action and in essence, in becoming and in being. Because it remembers itself, it exists. Because it exists, it remembers.”

91-Year-Old Lebanese-American Poet, Philosopher, and Painter Etel Adnan on Memory, the Self, and the Universe

Oftentimes during meditation, I am visited by flash-memories dislodged from some dusty recess of my unconscious — vignettes and glimpses of people, places, and events from long ago and far away, belonging to what feels like another lifetime. They are entirely banal — the curb of a childhood sidewalk, mid-afternoon light falling on a familiar building in a familiar way, the smell of a leather armchair on a hot summer day — but in their banality they intimate the existence of the former self who inhabited those moments, a self that seems so foreign and so remote, yet one to which I am forever fettered by this half-conscious memory.

Memory, indeed, is the centerpiece of our selfhood and moors our bodies to our minds, as those flashes of the embodied mind unclenched by meditation reveal. Memory endows us with creativity and animates some of our most paradoxical impulses.

A century after Virginia Woolf painted memory as the capricious seamstress that stitches our lives together, Paris-based Lebanese-American poet, essayist, philosopher, and visual artist Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925) picks up Woolf’s thread throughout Night (public library) — her slender, powerful collection of prose meditations and poems that, from the fortunate vantage point of Adnan’s ninety-first year on Earth, concretize in luminous language and incisive thought life’s most elusive perplexities: time, memory, love, selfhood, mortality.

Etel Adnan: “The Weight of the World” (Serpentine Galleries)

Adnan, whom the polymathic curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has celebrated as one of the most influential artists of the past century, was born in Beirut to a Greek mother and a Syrian father. She began writing poetry in French at twenty and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne a generation after Simone de Beauvoir, then crossed the Atlantic for graduate studies at Harvard and Berkeley. In the 1960s, Adnan took a teaching position at a small Catholic school in California, where she began painting and transcribing the work of Arab poets. She moved back to Beirut and in the midst of the Lebanese civil war composed politically wakeful poetry and prose that arrested the popular imagination with an uncommon precision of insight. Adnan now lives in Paris with her partner, the Syrian-born artist and publisher Simone Fattal, where she continues to paint and write.

Drawing on the rich span of her life across time and space, Adnan reflects on the role of memory in the continuity of our personal identity:

Memory, and time, both immaterial, are rivers with no banks, and constantly merging. Both escape our will, though we depend on them. Measured, but measured by whom or by what? The one is inside, the other, outside, or so it seems, but is that true? Time seems also buried deep in us, but where? Memory is right here, in the head, but it can exit, abandon the head, leave it behind, disappear. Memory, a sanctuary of infinite patience.

Is memory produced by us, or is it us? Our identity is very likely whatever our memory decides to retain. But let’s not presume that memory is a storage room. It’s not a tool for being able to think, it’s thinking, before thinking. It also makes an (apparently) simple thing like crossing the room, possible. It’s impossible to separate it from what it remembers.

Etel Adnan (Photograph by Simone Fattal)

In stretching between the poles of existence and nonexistence, memory, Adnan suggests, might be the native consciousness of the universe:

We can admit that memory resurrects the dead, but these remain within their world, not ours. The universe covers the whole, a warm blanket.

But this memory is the glue that keeps the universe as one: although immaterial, it makes being possible, it is being. If an idea didn’t remember to think, it wouldn’t be. If a chair wasn’t there, it wouldn’t be tomorrow. If I didn’t remember that I am, I won’t be. We can also say that the universe is itself the glue that keeps it going, therefore it is memory in action and in essence, in becoming and in being. Because it remembers itself, it exists. Because it exists, it remembers.

Art by Etel Adnan (Sfeir-Semler Gallery)

In a sentiment that calls to mind Joan Didion’s unforgettable assertion that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Adnan considers how memory binds us to each other and to our own former selves:

Memory is intelligent. It’s a knowledge seated neither in the senses, nor in the spirit, but in collective memory. It is communal, though deeply personal. Involved with the self, though autonomous. At war with death.

It helps us rampage through the old self, hang on the certitude that it has to be.


Reason and memory move together.

And night and memory mediate each other. We move in them disoriented, for they often refuse to secure our vision. Avaricious, whimsical, they release things bit by bit.

Building upon Woolf’s metaphor, Adnan adds:

Memory sews together events that hadn’t previously met. It reshuffles the past and makes us aware that it is doing so.


Memory is within us and reaches out, sometimes missing the connection with reality, its neighbor, its substance.

Complement this particular fragment of Adnan’s wholly enchanting Night with Sally Mann on the treacheries of memory and Cecilia Ruiz’s poetic illustrated meditation on memory’s imperfections inspired by Borges, then revisit Kahlil Gibran, another Lebanese-American poet and philosopher of uncommon insight, on why artists make art.

Thanks, Jen


A Pioneering Scientist on Memory, the Value of Our Unremembered Work, and the Incalculable Sum Total of the Human Experience

“Are we not … parts of a greater organism, kept alive through the ever more vividly circulating blood of an enormous past?”

A Pioneering Scientist on Memory, the Value of Our Unremembered Work, and the Incalculable Sum Total of the Human Experience

“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it,” Gabriel García Márquez asserted in immortalizing the memory of his own life. And yet however much truth the sentiment may hold, it holds twice as much tragedy — although memory is the seedbed of our sense of self, the vast majority of life unfolds in the small, unremembered moments that furnish the microscopic threads in the tapestry of being. Sally Mann captured this paradox in her exquisite meditation on the dark side of memory: “The exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away.”

Memory, then, is not the pencil with which the outline of a life is drawn but the eraser — something as true of our personal memory as it is of our collective memory, which contains everything we know as culture: the great works of art celebrated generations after their creators have returned to stardust, the scientific discoveries that become the building blocks of subsequent theories and breakthroughs.

Perhaps because science is the ultimate self-correcting mechanism and necessarily builds on both the errors and the triumphs of the past, scientists must have a particularly revealing perspective on memory and its paradoxes. That’s what pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff (August 11, 1905–June 20, 2002) explores in a passage of Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life Before Nature — his uncommonly lyrical memoir, which gave us Chargaff on the poetics of curiosity and the power of being an outsider.

Erwin Chargaff

Chargaff writes:

If we could not forget, we could not remember; just as only the trembling balance can weigh. There are nights with a rose tint, there are days black with clouds, a groan from a deathbed, a hand on my hair, a voice out of the pyre of forgottenness. The ashes do speak, but it is a broken murmur. Brief reflections of brightness, as from a shattered mirror, play over the blackness of an ever-present past.

I tell what I am told. Who is the speaker? If it is memory, then why does it sometimes whisper, sometimes shout, often chatter, and mostly remain in sullen silence?

Illustration from The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz

Noting that this nature of memory condemns him to “writing as a fragmentist,” Chargaff looks back on his own past as a scientist and reflects on the “ghostly pantomime” in which scientists engage as they test theories and perform experiments invisible to the outside world, lost to the canon of collective memory, which James Gleick once so elegantly termed “the fast-expanding tapestry of interwoven ideas and facts that we call our culture.” With an eye to his days in the laboratories of Columbia University and their invisibilia of forgotten yet undismissable work, Chargaff writes:

That most of this activity did not lead to anything handed on to posterity was perhaps a pity. But does this count in the face of a human life? Does not the great corpus mysticum of the world contain all that was once felt or thought, suffered or overcome, created or forgotten, whether written or unwritten, made or destroyed? Are we not in this sense parts of a greater organism, kept alive through the ever more vividly circulating blood of an enormous past?

Heraclitean Fire is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Virginia Woolf on how memory threads our lives together, Arthur Schopenhauer on how it mediates the blurry line between sanity and insanity, and this stunning short film about memory, inspired by Oliver Sacks.


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