Saturday, November 25, 2006


I've been thinking more n more about memory. It's something I've had an interest in for quite a while, but lately I've been pondering how it actually works and how this can be different for each of us. It fascinates me how people can experience the same event, yet their accounts can be very different. For instance, four people attend a lunch. One will remember what everyone ate, one will remember what everyone was wearing, one will remember the conversation in minute detail and one will question whether they were even there. Personally, I pride myself on my longterm memory and though I can't claim to remember being born (like one of my friends does, ahem...) I can remember a lot of things that happened from a very early age (including such things as being in the pram with my younger sister)

I once started writing a list and surprised myself with the number of things I came up with. I've still got that list somewhere (er, not sure where), but in some cases I don't really recall the event, I just know that it happened. I can remember the names of all of my school teachers (though it's easier for me to remember the earliest ones from Primary school) plus most of the kids I went to school with. I'm also good with phone numbers (though not as good as I used to be) and I can tell you the names and all sorts of trivial details about long forgotten Australian film and TV actors

As for my short-term memory, that went kaput around the same time I started smoking pot (I remember this because it was a long time ago). I'm no longer much of a pot smoker, but I still have trouble remembering what the hell I did yesterday. And this is the other thing that fascinates me. See, I believe every single experience is stored in our memory banks - somewhere - we just need something to trigger off the recollection. It's happened to me with a smell, a word, a song, a photo... I'll suddenly remember something I haven't thought about for years n years and it's as vivid as yesterday (yes, I remember telling you I have no short-term thingo)

Something that piqued my interest in memory was a doco I saw on telly the other night called Unknown White Male. This doco traces the experience of 30-something Doug Bruce, an Englishman in New York who was on the train to Coney Island one day in 2003 when he realised he didn't know who he was or where he was going. With no identification and only a telephone number written on a scrap of paper he pieced together enough details to prevent himself being incarcerated in the loony bin. There are proven medical cases of amnesia, where people eventually get their memory back, but Doug Bruce claims to have never regained anything from before that episode on the train. Having amnesia gave the charismatic Bruce an opportunity to start his life afresh - an interesting concept. The doco looked at how he, his friends and his family coped with having to start their relationships from scratch. There were lots of other curious ideas to deal with too. For instance Bruce remembered how to speak English and French, but he didn't remember learning either language. We saw him experience different types of food for the "first" time and in one scene we witnessed him dive into the ocean without knowing if he could swim (he could)

The doco gave me lots to think about, but after doing some further research it seems the whole thing could be an elaborate hoax. It wouldn't be the first time. About 10 years ago New Zealand born director, Peter Jackson, made a "mockumentary", which sucked me (and countless others) in. But I really don't know. I felt like writing to Bruce and perpetrating my own hoax. In my letter I'd tell him he's actually gay, that we were lovers once upon a time and he takes it up the arse - he just couldn't remember...

Above: Amnesiac Doug Bruce, misty water coloured memories of the way we were

The day after I saw the doco I was discussing memory with a friend. I told him there are three types of memory. He said, "Yeah, longterm, short term and..." (long pause). I replied, "And CRAFT - Can't Remember A Fucking Thing"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Nash,
This is strange; perhaps I should start my own “coincidence file”. I’ve been dwelling on my memory process (or lack thereof) for the past 2-weeks. I reconnected with an old childhood friend recently that I hadn’t seen in 37 years. We’d begun e-mailing in September and decided it was time to actually re-meet again after so long a time. As we walked alongside the ocean, I recalled things from our childhood that she had absolutely no recollection of whatsoever. Some of the miniscule trivia I remembered was literally frightening and I’m sure she thought I was some kind psychic “nut”. However, I’d be hard pressed to remember what I bought 3 days ago at the grocery store or what it is that seemed so urgent this morning and I’ve no idea now what it was….

Sometimes I think we remember things that are really significant in some way or another to us and the mundane everyday things that aren’t really vital flow in and out of our brains like water through a sieve. I’m also finding as I age, that factoids like addresses, phone numbers and peoples names don’t seem to adhere in the gray matter like they use to.

November 25, 2006 2:41 PM  
Blogger nash said...

Hi Miss Litzi,
Great to read your response! I think you're right when you say we remember things that are really significant to us. Of course, this suggests we have some control over what we do or don't remember. Maybe it's partly to do with "exercising" that part of our brain where memories are stored. Who knows? It's such a huge concept. I think I'll do some reading on it... In the meantime, I'd like to encourage you to start your own coincidence file

Enjoy your weekend

November 25, 2006 2:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I focused my entire art practice on memory for two years, it is a big issue for me and so interesting to study.

November 26, 2006 1:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Nash,
Your observation “this suggests we have some control over what we do or don’t remember” is most interesting. When I’m suddenly reminded of an event that occurred years ago, I wonder if the memory was repressed for some unknown reason or if it was always lurking on the edge of my consciousness and needed the right spark to ignite it. Aren’t repressed memories something that can be brought to light through hypnosis?

Maybe I will start a “coincidence file” and see what happens….

November 26, 2006 2:52 PM  
Blogger nash said...

Hi Jay,
Sounds fascinating - Do you mean you looked at something and then tried to recreate it from memory?

Hi Miss Litzi,
Yeah hypnosis can bring about long forgotten memories. And some people believe we can be regressed to past lives (I'm one of those believers)

November 26, 2006 6:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Nash,
I’d like to be regressed to any past lives I might’ve had; it’d be interesting to know if I was animal, vegetable or mineral. My best bet would be a vegetable…..

November 27, 2006 3:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw that documentary as well Nash. Two things resonated.

Firstly, there was the possibility it was a hoax. I found it strange that there didn't seem to be any follow up on his medical treatment and that the 'professionals' that were interviewed were only asked for their opinion on the case (I dont think some had even met him).

Secondly, he seemed blank. I found his demeanor strange. This is what you can imagine someone thinking that having a blank canvas to work with for a life would be - but I imagine quite the opposite. For instance, imagine crossing the road for the first time and seeing cars whizz past. Imagine if you were a cave man doing this (stay with me) - your reaction would be like a spooked horse that's going to bolt for it's life. I can image that your reaction to everything would be completely neurotic - and over the top in a hilarious way - like an escapee from a looney bin.

November 27, 2006 7:56 AM  
Blogger nash said...

Well Sheila, you're obviously more perceptive than me. I didn't consider it could be a hoax until I read the Washington Post article (see link). Perhaps I was too enchanted by the charlatan (wouldn't be the first time)

November 28, 2006 11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the article in the Washington Post and found it very interesting. If this guy in pulling off a hoax, he's doing a pretty resonable job (despite weeping over his first encounter with rain which was really his second as it was raining when he first walked into the police station in the beginning). Also the fact that he had a friend in Paris who lost his identity for a week after a car accident (which was never brought up in the doco).

It really brings to mind the talented David Hampton. This guy was responsible for the play and later the film - Six Degrees Of Separation which is close to our hearts....

November 29, 2006 9:44 AM  

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