Dreams of stuff that never happened

The subject of memory comes up a lot in my reading. Cognitive science; philosophy; Buddhism and Taoism. Eventually they all get around to talking about the sense of self. That feeling of “I” that almost everyone experiences. Memory seems to be the glue that holds the self together throughout the years. I few nights ago I was reminded there are two types of memory (perhaps more, but two that I’m aware of).

I was going to call the first — and most common — “real memory.” But memories don’t seem as real to me as they once did. I considered “Memories of Stuff that Probably Happened,” but that’s a mouthful. Let’s call these Accessible Memories. I’m sure people who study this kind of stuff have a name for these, I just don’t know what it is.

Accessible Memories are of people, places, things that (probably) existed or happened in your past. I call them “accessible” because you can “go back” and retrieve them. Let’s say someone you work with mentions taking her son to Little League practice. If you played you probably have memories and you can intentionally retrieve some of them. In my experience, it’s usually the same ones. Perhaps because they’re good memories… or bad memories. In my experience, the longer I spend thinking about that time in my life, the more memories I can access. But my sense is there is a finite number of memories. Perhaps with drugs or hypnosis I could recall all of my memories but that’s another topic. But for whatever reason, I have a strong sense these memories are of stuff that happened.

Let’s talk about dreams for a moment. Most of my dreams involve people and places from my past. As well as events that, though distorted and warped, have some basis in experience. But every so often I’ll have a dream that features totally unfamiliar elements, involving people/places/events that were never part of my waking life. Where did those images come from? Creepier still, one of these “made up” dreams might reoccur months or years later.

I’m aware of these “made up” dreams because I remember them. Sometimes upon awakening. Sometimes days later, “out of the blue” as it were. This is the other type of memory that I find so mysterious. Can one have a memory of something that never happened. Not just an inaccurate memory where you get some of the details wrong. But of something completely… imaginary? But that’s not right. The dream did happen. And I’m having a memory of that dream. Are dreams and memories completely different phenomenon? Can I dream about a memory? Why not?

Since I can have a memory of a dream (based on experiences), why not a memory of a dream featuring people that never existed and stuff that never happened? It feels like I’m conflating dreams and memories and they’re probably two different but related experiences. But these memories-of-dreams-of-stuff-that-never-happened fascinate me. And make my head hurt. (I keep looking for Leonardo DiCaprio’s little top from the movie Inception.)

Memories and dreams are “head stuff.” That’s the only place they happen (I know, I know. That’s the only place everything happens). So they feel less real to me than, say, the breath I’m taking at this moment. I can reach into wherever memories are kept and paw through them like a shoebox full of old photos… I can’t go digging around for a favorite dream. They’re mostly gone. For good reasons, I’m told. But once in awhile one “pops into our heads.” A memory, but always fleeting. Perhaps dreams-of-stuff-that-never-happened (DOSTNH) belong to someone else and got caught in a cosmic consciousness riptide before drifting over to one of my dreams.

Memory creates the illusion of continuity

Daniel Kahneman said, “There are the experiences in our lives… and our memories of those experiences. And they are not the same.”

Memory seems to be the secret sauce to that feeling of a continuous, unchanging ME. But I’m finding it increasingly difficult to think of my memories as “mine.” It was easier when I thought of them as photographs in a shoebox on a shelf in my mind.

“Memories are not etched permanently in the brain. Instead, every time a memory is retrieved, it is destroyed and then re-created, and it becomes a memory of a memory. Any current memories we have are copies of copies of copies… many times over depending on how many times we have recalled that particular experience. Because of this process of creating, destroying, and re-creating memories, our recollections are unstable and subject to alteration. Each time we recall an event from our lives, the memory of that event can change. […] We never have a full recollection of anything that’s happened to us, and our memories are constructed from hints, scraps and traces found within the mind.” — Living As A River

I have a memory of a four-year-old Steve jumping up and down on the bed and then crashing through the bedroom window. Obviously that didn’t happen and I have no idea when or how the memory was formed. How many other of my memories are “constructed?”

Thirty years ago Barb and I went to New York with another couple. It was miserably cold and I remember almost nothing of that weekend. I have a photo of me with a parrot sitting on my shoulder. That must have happened but I’m not sure if I have a memory of the experience or if the photo somehow created that memory.

So what remains when the person, that oh-so-strong sense of a permanent self, is gone?

“A vague memory remains, like the memory of a dream, or early childhood. After all, what is there to remember? A flow of events, mostly accidental and meaningless. A sequence of desires and fears and inane blunders. Is there anything worth remembering? Realize that your present existence is like a shower of sparks, each spark lasting a second and the shower itself — a minute or two.” — Nisargadatta Maharaj

My memories seem so important. Would there be a “me” without them? And, yet, when I examine them, one at a time, they are indeed “mostly accidental and meaningless.”

James Gleick says “We experience childhood one way when we’re living it and another way when we relive it in memory.” Good. That means it was more fun than I recall.

Again, James Gleick: “But if memory is the action of recollection, the act of remembrance, then it implies an ability to hold in the mind two constructs, one representing the present and another representing the past, and to compare them, one against the other. How did we learn to distinguish memory from experience?”

Might that be why memories are mostly fuzzy and vague, “…constructed from hints, scraps and traces found within the mind.” We seldom confuse experience with memory.

I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the question who or what am I? And the answer I keep coming up with is: I am this immediate experience. And nothing more. As Alan Watts said, “This is it.” But it’s impossible for me to think of an experience as a discrete ‘thing.” Each is gone before I can bring it into consciousness. I can only think about the experience that just slipped away. It easier to think in terms of process, a flow of experiences. Ever changing. Never the same. That means keeping all the inputs wide open. Turn down the noise, turn up the signal. Be here, now.

A thousand years is but an instant

“A thousand years is but an instant. There’s nothing new, nothing different; same pattern over and over. The same clouds, same music, the same things I felt an hour or an eternity ago. There’s nothing here for me now, nothing at all. Now I remember, this happened to me before. This is why I left. You have begun to find your answers. Although it will seem difficult the rewards will be great. Exercise your human mind as fully as possible knowing that it is only an exercise. Build beautiful artifacts, solve problems, explore the secrets of the physical universe, savor the input from all the senses, filled with joy and sorrow and laughter, empathy, compassion, and tote the emotional memory in your travel bag. I remember where I came from, and how I became human, why I hung around, and now my final departure’s scheduled. This way out, escaping velocity. Not just eternity, but Infinity.”

From Waking Life by Richard Linklater (IMDb)

Time Travel: A History (James Gleick)

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-12-01-53-pm“From the acclaimed author of The Information and Chaos, here is a mind-bending exploration of time travel: its subversive origins, its evolution in literature and science, and its influence on understanding time itself.”

Sleeping into the future is what we do every night.

“Man can do what he will, but he cannot will what he wills.” — Arthur Schopenhauer

“People living in different countries kill each other at irregular time intervals, so that also for this reason anyone who thinks about the future must live in fear and terror. I trust that posterity will read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority.” — Albert Einstein’s message in the time capsule buried at the 1939 New York World’s Fair

We know that complete certainty must always elude us. We know that for certain.

“Time and space are modes by which we think, and not conditions in which we live.” — Albert Einstein

“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything.” — Richard Feynman

What is time? Things change, and time is how we keep track.

Schopenhauer asserted that life and dreams are pages from the same book. To read them in their proper order is to live, but to browse among them is to dream.

No one can really explain how memories are formed and retrieved. Nor can anyone explain away Proust’s paradoxical contention: that the past cannot truly be recovered by searching our memories, by interrogating them, by rewinding the film or reaching back into the drawer; rather, that the essence of the past, when it comes to us at all,comes unbidden.

If you ever see yourself coming out of a time machine, run the other way as fast as you can. Nothing good can come from meeting yourself. — Charles Yu

We experience childhood one way when we’re living it and another way when we relive it in memory.

But if memory is the action of recollection, the act of remembrance, then it implies an ability to hold in the mind two constructs, one representing the present and another representing the past, and to compare them, one against the other. How did we learn to distinguish memory from experience?

Our conscious brains invent the concept of time over and over again, inferring it from memory and extrapolating from change. And time is indispensable to our awareness of self. […] You order the slices of your life. You edit the film even as it records.

“There were buttons and switches everywhere—buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature, and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.” — The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster

Why do we need time travel, when we already travel through space so far and fast? For history. For mystery. For nostalgia. For hope. To examine our potential and explore our memories. To counter regret for the life we lived, the only life, one dimension, beginning to end.

“We know it all now, with our thoughts travelling at the speed of tweet. We are time travelers into our own future. We are Time Lords.” — Ali Smith

If we confuse the real world with our many virtual worlds, it’s because so much of the real world is virtual.

Time’s winged chariot isn’t taking us anywhere good. […] The past, in which we did not exist, is bearable, but the future, in which we will not exist, troubles us more.

“We perceive time only because we know we have to die.” — Heidegger

Shotgun Shack

A “shotgun house” is a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than 12 feet (3.5 m) wide, with rooms arranged one behind the other and doors at each end of the house. It was the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the American Civil War (1861–65), through the 1920s. (Wikipedia)

This is me. Taken sometime in the early ’70s? Yes, that’s a cotton field. My mom picked cotton when she was young. She said it was back-breaking work. They called them “shotgun shacks” because you could shoot a shotgun through the front door and out the back door. If memory serves, I sent this photo to Barb while she was still in college, to show her what life with me would be like.

15 years of Day-Timers

I burned fifteen years worth of Day-Timers today, the culmination of a months long project. I went through each day from 1984 to 1999, creating a corresponding entry in my Google Calendar. By ’99 I had started keeping notes in Act! (now on a rusting hard drive in some landfill).

I considered shredding these but the wire binder made that impractical. So I put them in a wash tub, soaked them in gasoline and burned them.

In addition to being a long, tedious (and pointless?) task, I found it a bit stressful. The pages were filled with more unpleasant memories than I would have imagined. Don’t get me wrong. I worked for a great company, with some really wonderful people. But, in retrospect, I wasn’t having as much fun as I always though I had. Does that many any sense at all?

Flipping through those old pages brought back some physical sensations. A little stomach clinch over some bad news… tightness in the neck muscles as some unpleasantness unfolded. I was glad to get through the final month. And the burning ritual seemed therapeutic.

What remains when the ‘person’ is gone?

“A vague memory remains, like the memory of a dream, or early childhood. After all, what is there to remember? A flow of events, mostly accidental and meaningless. A sequence of desires and fears and inane blunders. Is there anything worth remembering? The person is but a shell imprisoning you. Break the shell. Realize that your present existence is like a shower of sparks, each spark lasting a second and the shower itself — a minute or two.” — Nisargadatta Maharaj

(Photo courtesy of Martino F.)

The Book

The Book, Alan WattsThe Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966). I like the way Alan Watts writes. Some of the sixties jargon sounds a little quaint but, hey, that’s the way we talked back then. If you haven’t read this book (and don’t intend to), you can skip this post. Won’t make any sense at all out of context. Admittedly, some of the ideas are hard to grasp within context. Posts like this one (excerpts from a book) are archival. A place for me to come back and locate an idea I could never find by flipping through the book.

He pretends that he is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the stars. In this way he has strange and wonderful adventures, some of which are terrible and frightening. But these are just like bad dreams, for when he wakes up they will disappear. […] It takes him a long time to remember where and how he hid himself. […] We are God in disguise, pretending not to be himself.

God is the Self of the world, but you can’t see God for the same reason that, without a mirror, you can’t see your own eyes.

He isn’t really doing this to anyone but himself. […] In the Vedanta philosophy, nothing exists except God. […] But Vedanta is much more than the idea or the belief that this is so. It is centrally and above all the experience, the immediate knowledge of its being so.

You don’t die because you were never born. You had just forgotten who you are.

All information will come in by super-realistic television and other electronic devices as yet in the planning stage or barely imagined. In one way this will enable the individual to extend himself anywhere without moving his body— even to distant regions of space. But this will be a new kind of individual— an individual with a colossal external nervous system reaching out and out into infinity. And this electronic nervous system will be so interconnected that all individuals plugged in will tend to share the same thoughts, the same feelings, and the same experiences. […] If all this ends with the human race leaving no more trace of itself in the universe than a system of electronic patterns, why should that trouble us? For that is exactly what we are now!

No one thing or feature of this universe is separable from the whole, the only real You, or Self, is the whole.

Most people think of themselves as separate from their thoughts and experiences.

Memory is an enduring pattern of motion, like the whirlpool, rather than an enduring substance, like a mirror, a wax tablet, or a sheet of paper.

Society is our extended mind and body.

(You are) one particular focal point at which the whole universe expresses itself. […] Every individual is a unique manifestation of the Whole,

The death of the individual is not disconnection but simply withdrawal. The corpse is like a footprint or an echo— the dissolving trace of something which the Self has ceased to do.

The only real “I” is the whole endless process.

Every organism is a process: thus the organism is not other than its actions. To put it clumsily: it is what it does. More precisely, the organism, including its behavior, is a process which is to be understood only in relation to the larger and longer process of its environment. […] The whole is a pattern, a complex wiggliness, which has no separate parts. Parts are fictions of language.

Apart from your brain, or some brain, the world is devoid of light, heat, weight, solidity, motion, space, time, or any other imaginable feature.

This little germ with its fabulous brain is evoking the whole thing, including the nebulae millions of light-years away. […] A structure of such fabulous ingenuity that it calls the whole universe into being.

No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.

Making an effort to be ego-less is like “beating a drum in search of a fugitive.”

You are nothing at all apart from everything else. […] Each organism is the universe experiencing itself in endless variety.

Don’t try to get rid of the ego-sensation. Take it, so long as it lasts, as a feature or play of the total process — like a cloud or wave, or like feeling warm or cold, or anything else that happens of itself. Getting rid of one’s ego is the last resort of invincible egoism! It simply confirms and strengthens the reality of the feeling. But when this feeling of separateness is approached and accepted like any other sensation, it evaporates like the mirage that it is.

Meditate just to meditate.

When this new sensation of self arises, it is at once exhilarating and a little disconcerting. It is like the moment when you first got the knack of swimming or riding a bicycle. There is the feeling that you are not doing it yourself, but that it is somehow happening on its own, and you wonder whether you will lose it— as indeed you may if you try forcibly to hold on to it. In immediate contrast to the old feeling, there is indeed a certain passivity to the sensation, as if you were a leaf blown along by the wind, until you realize that you are both the leaf and the wind. The world outside your skin is just as much you as the world inside: they move together inseparably, and at first you feel a little out of control because the world outside is so much vaster than the world inside. Yet you soon discover that you are able to go ahead with ordinary activities— to work and make decisions as ever, though somehow this is less of a drag. Your body is no longer a corpse which the ego has to animate and lug around. There is a feeling of the ground holding you up, and of hills lifting you when you climb them. Air breathes itself in and out of your lungs, and instead of looking and listening, light and sound come to you on their own. Eyes see and ears hear as wind blows and water flows. All space becomes your mind. Time carries you along like a river, but never flows out of the present: the more it goes, the more it stays, and you no longer have to fight or kill it.

The universe is at root a magical illusion and a fabulous game, and that there is no separate “you” to get something out of it, as if life were a bank to be robbed. The only real “you” is the one that comes and goes, manifests and withdraws itself eternally in and as every conscious being. For “you” is the universe looking at itself from billions of points of view, points that come and go so that the vision is forever new. What we see as death, empty space, or nothingness is only the trough between the crests of this endlessly waving ocean.

The Self is playing its most far-out and daring game— the game of having lost Itself completely and of being in danger of some total and irremediable disaster.

We are merely bolting our lives— gulping down undigested experiences as fast as we can stuff them in— because awareness of our own existence is so superficial and so narrow that nothing seems to us more boring than simple being.

How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god?

It seems to be the special peculiarity of human beings that they reflect: they think about thinking and know that they know.

For so long as I am trying to grasp IT, I am implying that IT is not really myself.

I return in every baby born. […] It matters not whether the interval be ten seconds or billions of years. In unconsciousness all times are the same brief instant.

In looking out upon the world, we forget that the world is looking at itself— through our eyes and IT’s.