Why is Memory Important?

by Dr Matthew Del Nevo
18th October 2016


Memory is important because without it we have no identity. There is a South Korean movie called A Moment to Remember in which the main female lead played by the very beautiful Son Ye-jin falls in love and marries a man, played by Jung Woo-sung, but shortly after is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She is 27 years old and cannot believe it. The film shows her forgetting her husband, her family, her whereabouts, what she is supposed to be doing and in the end, herself. Without her memory she is no-one but a disoriented body. She has lost her soul, she says to her husband in a moment of lucidity. We are the stuff of dreams, as poet Walter de la Mare wrote, which is to say composed of our memories. Without memory we go to waste, we lose our very selves.

Transpose this situation of loss of memory to a group. A group with no memory has nothing to bind it and form it as a group. The group will disperse. There is no such thing as a society without memory. It is an impossibility! Although memories might not seem like much, although memories may seem ephemeral, are actually the life-blood of our soul, our sensibility, our feeling, and as I said, our very identity.

This article will help you to consider memory more seriously. Memories are based on experience. We remember what we have done and what has been done to us. We remember what we hear about, what affects us, what troubles us and what we enjoy, even if we do not do these things but only read about them or see them in a movie. Given that what we do – the way we behave – will comprise our memory, we have some personal control and choice in what it is that we will remember. If we fill our minds with bad noise and images that is what will be our memory and it will drag us down. If we fill our minds with beautiful and peaceful ways our memory will bear us up in hard times. So we need to think to ourselves: how can I get good memories? What should I do to have a memory full of cheerful, hopeful images?

Although our memory controls us in the sense that memories assail us whether we like them or not, whether or not we want to remember them, the flip-side is that what we do will fill our memory, so let us do things that we will want to remember!

By making you more conscious of the importance of memory this article could be beneficial to your well-being. For the meaning of what I have just said is that there is a link between our memory and our well-being. It is a good idea to consider this link carefully. In the past people have considered the link between memory and well-being, so we shall recall in what follows some of what they have said and a few of the lessons to be learned from it:

i) The philosopher Plato in a dialogue called the Meno, written 300 years before the Common Era, showed how all learning is remembering. This sounds counter-intuitive. Well, the main character, Socrates, is at a party and that is what everyone there thought too. So Socrates called a slave boy over. The slave is illiterate and innumerate – he cannot write or count. But he can understand orders given to him. By asking a series of questions and getting him to make markings on the ground, to the astonishment of the audience and subsequently to readers of the Meno down the centuries, the slave gives the Pythagorean theorem of the triangle that the square on they hypotenuse is equal of the sum of the angles on the other two sides. How did he know this? Plato’s answer is that knowledge is within us, but has to be awoken out of us. Questions – such as those Socrates just asked – may awaken us to knowledge. Plato’s point is that all cognition is actually re-cognition. We know because we already unconsciously know. The unconscious forms the condition for the possibility of our coming-to-know, our conscious knowledge. This is the greatest theory of knowledge that has ever been written. It links knowledge to memory. To know is to re-member. So when I say I know my name is Sam, it is because I remember – and the same with absolutely everything that comes to mind. All knowledge is embedded in memory. Of course this theory of knowledge was contested in Greece by Plato’s disciples and would be disputed today on the same grounds. We would tend to say that we know what we did not know before, we find it out, then we remember it. This pattern of thought is sequential or linear and starts outside ourselves, rather than within, where memory is. So Plato’s disciples and we today have turned Plato inside-out. Even so, Plato still makes sense. Of course books are evidence of our forgetfulness. We need to write our knowledge down lest it disappear again. Writing fixes our memories. An oral tradition relies on memory and the transmission of memory from generation to generation.

ii) A culture where memory has kept the people together against all odds is the Jewish culture. The Jews, a small alliance of desert tribes with a common ancestor in Jacob were obliterated by their enemies repeatedly through history: the Egyptians made them slaves but they escaped; the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians by turns took them from their lands; the Greek, the Roman, the Christian empires in their turn oppressed the Jews and often tried to get rid of them altogether. The Nazis in Germany are the most recent and terrible example of enmity to the Jews… so what keeps these people going? What keeps these people who had no land and were dispersed around the world for two thousand years together? The answer is memory. The Jews have ritualized their memory and kept it sacred. On the Sabbath eve, Friday toward sunset, they light the candles, recite certain prayers and blessings, blessing the children, recalling their slavery and exile, sanctifying the home. The Jews have not just remembered but tied memory to hope – what they call redemption, when peace and goodwill will reign on earth – of which they believe their rituals and ethics are a seedbed. For Plato the Greek, memory was constitutive of knowledge, for the Jews memory is constitutive of hope and truth. I mentioned identity before, and the Jews are preeminent perhaps for their sense of identity given that they have normally existed in circumstances where it is most likely to be lost.

iii) The Greek idea in Plato of memory as being these infinite collective storehouses of all and everything to do with the mind and imagination of everyone everywhere in all of time came into the Latin and European world through Augustine of Hippo. Hippo was a small town in North Africa. Augustine was a Latin professor of rhetoric in Milan and Rome but converted to Christianity at the end of the fourth century. One of the most famous books ever written was his Confessions, about how he found God. The tenth book of the Confessions is entitled Memory. In this book he establishes for the Middle Ages (the age that would follow him and in which Europe would be established after the Roman Empire), his theory of memory. His theory is not very different from Plato, except that Plato believed in past and future lives. Augustine believed each of us only has this one life, but in death we go into memory. Only God remembers all and everything. We humans are formed from within by memory and we contribute to memory by what we do, which then becomes memorable. Even what we do in secret that no one knows about and we forget about, becomes memorable for Augustine, because God sees and remembers. Ultimately, nothing is forgotten, and no-one is forgotten, although it may seem to us from our little vantage point under the starry sky that things are forgotten. Augustine’s Christian faith meant that he believed God helps us remember the right things that we should remember and need to remember – remember ourselves, remember our neighbour, remember to honour God.

iv) What I have described so far might be called the “metaphysics” of memory because it describes large over-arching ideas of memory. Science is related to the metaphysics of memory, but the scientific approach is different, because science seeks to gather information or facts or knowledge about the thing it seeks to know about. Memory is one such thing. The scientific tradition also goes back to Greece, to Plato’s student, Aristotle.

v) The problem with examining memory as if it were an object is that memory is a precondition of any examination of it. So the science of memory performs a contradiction: it already needs to remember, in order to study memory. This is called a paradox and of course it has been brought to the attention of the brain scientists and geneticists, mainly in the United States, but the habit of regarding the brain as a computer is a metaphor widely held in pop science and associated media. However there is a big problem with this science that might be stated as follows: it presupposes its object. The presupposition of the object not only affects the research outcomes, but is a condition of them. This is a problem that can never be overcome. As Carl Jung said in the first page of his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections: the subject can never be the object of itself. Memory is always subject. As I have said, it is the very identity of the subject to begin with.

vi) We tend to think of memory as part of the brain, but we need memory in order to think the word “brain” let alone to think anything about it! So memory and brain are not necessarily the same thing, the one dependent and part of the other, rather there is an interdependence: not one without the other. This seems a bit of a paradox, but it is why we have the word “mind”. This word does not mean the same as “brain”. The idea of “mind” is not physical. Memory has a physical correlate in the brain for sure, but it also is “free” somehow (we do not know how) and part of the “mind” (whatever that is).

vii) There is an Arabic saying that the soul travels at the speed of a camel. I may run on ahead but the soul in any case will lag behind. What does it mean? The camel is slowed down by memories. The more memory, the more heavily laden the camel is, the slower it goes. We need to live at the pace of our souls, of our memories, of the images and words that have formed who we are.

viii) The flip side of memory is forgetfulness. At the end of the 19th century the great German philosopher Nietzsche said our mental and spiritual health was dependent upon forgetting, on liberation from memory which weighs heavily on us culturally as a people, though we may not be aware of it. When I go back to Europe from Australia I always think that the future there is all about the past. There is no sense of any future that has not to do with reliving the past in some way. Australia by contrast is free.

ix) To forget, taught Nietzsche, is “To shut the doors and windows of consciousness for a while” and thereby to restore balance and mental order. Without forgetfulness “there could be no happiness, cheerfulness, hope, pride, immediacy, without forgetfulness.” (On the Genealogy of Morals). Forgetting is a strength, a counter-device to memory. “Memory, with the help of forgetfulness, can be suspended” and so we can avoid “indigestion” of the soul by ridding ourselves of memory, if we can forget. But it’s a big “if” for some individuals and some cultures.

x) In the movie Finding Nemo, a lot of the fun revolves around the forgetfulness of Dory. Fish it is supposed having 3 second memory-spans. It is strange today that we forget to think about memory. We have invented machines to store our memories outside of our minds, to try and fix our memories and make them more real, more definite, more exchangeable. A spate of Hollywood films from Total Recall (1990) starring Arnold Schwarznegger through the Bourne series (2002, 2004, 2007, 2012, 2016) starring Matt Damon, to Inception (2010) starring Leonardo DiCaprio depict scenarios in which memory and forgetfulness have become abject products of technology and objects of commercial intrigue and power-politics. In our time we are looking at the de-naturing of memory and forgetfulness by drugs and implants, so memory, like our environment is capable of being spoiled by our mad intelligence, if we do not remember . If such a scenario can be inflicted then individual and group identities could be nullified, and instead manufactured, as in James Cameron’s bar-coded Jessica Alba in the Dark Angel TV series (2000-2002) . What is to stop a superpower implementing a sci-fi fantasy if it carried on in the name of progress and talked up its actions in the same way that, in a short time, the whole world has become computerized? So in this regard, as with the pollution that has spoiled large areas of the planet, humanity could be considered at an impasse, about to lose its identity at the very same time as men seek to digitalise it.

About the Author: Matthew Del Nevo is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic Institute, Sydney.