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August 11th, 2009:

The Impersistence of Memory, Part 3

I had two college friends back in the early-mid 1970s; let’s call them Dottie and Sarah. I was quite close to them without getting mushy about it. (Back then it was common knowledge that I was committed to Carol and “safe,” though the term rankled me a little.) We went to a lot of the same parties, including the memorable one where a wide-eyed cheerleader type told me in slackjawed amazement: “You always talk in complete sentences!” Well, I have vivid memories of both girls smoking at one party or another. I found this appalling, because my father was dying of tobacco-induced cancer at the time, but I didn’t feel like I had enough claim on either of them to chew them out for it.

I lost track of them after 1975 or so. Dottie surfaced about ten years later, and I asked her if she had given up the coffin nails. Eyes downcast, she copped to smoking in the 70s, but said she hadn’t had one in years, and even in college only had one when the stress started to get to her. Fair enough. (And I hope it was the truth.)

I didn’t run into Sarah again until 2000. As I had with Dottie, I asked her if she’d given up smoking. She looked at me like I was a shopping-mall zombie with both arms shot off, and said a little coldly that she’d never held a lit cigarette in her entire life.

Whoa. But there’s that crystal-clear image of Sarah in 1974, leaning against somebody’s kitchen table piled high with cheese and half-empty wine bottles, holding a butt between two fingers and frowning while blowing smoke over her shoulder. The friendship had gotten very stale in 25 years, and my question did nothing to help. I dropped the subject. Still, the memory remains, as clear as ever. What the hell is going on here?

I think of Sarah and Dottie these days when the nutcase Extropians talk about uploading themselves to some sort of global Beowulf cluster. Human memory is not digital. Human memory has no checksums. Human memory comes without parity bits. Something is making me remember poor Sarah inhaling carcinogens, and whatever it is, I don’t want it to come along when I get copied into Metaspace and become one of the Players.

I’m increasingly convinced that we know less than we claim about the physical implementation of human memory, but I have a single slim clue about this particular case: One of my recurring nightmares is dreaming about Carol smoking. We’ve been together for 40 years now, and I have fair confidence that Carol has never held a lit cigarette either, but the dream images are terrifyingly real. I’m a good imaginer, and I write my stories by creating movie clips of the scenes in my head and watching them until I can describe them well. The same basic mechanism that allowed me to see (and then describe) scenes from The Cunning Blood torments me from time to time by creating scenes in which my soulmate embraces the evil that killed my father. If Carol, why not Sarah? I may have dreamed about her smoking years ago, and then over time forgot that I had seen it happen in a dream.

Michael Covington suggests that human memories get cross-linked like entries in a corrupt database, and that it’s happened to him. What I remember as Sarah smoking could be a memory of Dottie smoking, cross-linked to a memory of Sarah at a party. The two girls played similar roles in my life, and actually resembled one another in several ways. (And the parties, well, they were indistinguishable.) Most of our interactions happened 35 years ago. That’s plenty of time for analog chemical pointers to grow hair.

I have one more example to share, which in some respects is stranger than all of them. It’s one thing to forget something, and another to remember something badly. It’s truly odd to remember a person doing what a person never actually did. But in terms of pure weirdness, it’s hard to top vividly remembering an artifact that never existed at all.

Stay tuned.