explanatory nil

Stephen Rose’s book The Making of Memory sets out in sim-plified or summarised form everything important that was known by science about memory by the end of the twentieth century*. He tackles his subject mostly from a neurobiological perspective, but, in the final analysis, he has to conclude that there is nothing much that is known about the mechanism of memory, if indeed memory is contrived by means of a mechanism. Experiments performed on chickens (involving teaching the hapless birds to do something and then killing them and analysing their brains) have revealed that there are indeed some measurable morphological processes that take place in chicken brains when they have remembered, or rather learned something, which may not be the same thing. In spite of such advances, the ignorance of science in the face of memory is palpable, even when hidden in technical language like the following sentence: ‘We don’t know yet how universal the biochemical changes that are being found are to the different types of memory categorised by psychologists with their taxonomy of procedural and declarative, episodic and semantic.’ It is as though the neurobi-ologists were attempting to describe a book, say, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, with reference to the shapes that are formed in the spaces between letters. Dr Rose has spent most of his adult life studying memory, and is keen to show that there have been some advances during his tenure, notably from his own experiments. And yet, for me, as an explanatory artefact, the book’s value is close to nil.

083 hippocampusSo what if the hippocampus, a two-pronged structure in the brain, has something, though nobody knows precisely what, to do with memory? Memory is the experience of a subject, and the science that studies bodies as objects has banished subjects and their experience to the realm of ghosts. And it may be that Dr. Rose was barking or perhaps cheeping up the wrong tree when he performed ‘operations on young chicks that I wish it were possible to avoid.’

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French phenomenologist who, like W.G. Sebald, died in a motor crash in his fifties before he could consolidate his work, paid particular attention to the phenomenon of bodily learning. He shows us how the practice of skilled actions such as driving a car or even simply reaching out and touching one’s knee cannot be accounted for by the association or projection of memories, but that instead, the structuring of perception as a meaningful presentation must be prior to the association of memories.

I have seen and experienced this many times during karate practice. In randori or mock-combat, one moves very fast with a partner, attempting and parrying acts of extreme violence with all four limbs and yet never making other than the lightest contact. The action is improvised in response to the partner, and the atmosphere required is light and co-operative, even at times humorous, rather than aggressive or competitive, although everything one does in randori is expected to be firm and focused. In this situation, the karateka must use, without thought or memory, techniques which he or she has learned through repetitive action. The remembering mind, like the conceptual mind, is slow and cumbersome, so that by the time one has recalled and compared some prior situation to the current one, with the hope of, perhaps, recycling a response that worked before, the situation has moved on. The memory, far from being useful, delays the response and perhaps opens us to attack: ‘Stop thinking, Mike, I can see you thinking.’

The way that our bodies and minds configure themselves in response to situations, although learned, does not involve memory of the kind on which I mainly focus in this work, and perhaps does not involve memory at all. Knowledge of the world, for Merleau-Ponty, is given to us in perception rather than hauled out of memory. My experience, both on the dojo floor and at the jeweller’s workbench, to cite two areas where I have had reason to study my actions carefully, seems to confirm his analysis.


* Not much significant progress has been made since


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