Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Anatomy of Memory Recall

Anatomy of Memory Recall: Bliss of Oblivion?
Then of the Thee in Me that works behind 
The Veil, I lifted up my hands to find 
A Lamp amid the Darkness; and I heard, 
As from Without--"The Me Within Thee Blind!
          ~~Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat    
For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e'er resigned,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?
                     ~~Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

It has often been said that “memory is the second thing to go.”  If rejoined with a “what’s the first one?” the anticipated correct, on script answer would be “I can’t remember.”   As long as it remains anecdotal and adheres by the books, it admittedly is somewhat amusing.

However, this is not all born of idle indulgence upon the exercise in futility.  After you have arrived at that stage in life when a good deal of “getting lucky” means walking into a room and remembering why you went there in the first place, it erodes any amusement off the experience.

To go from my room to the kitchen I have to negotiate, among others, a 13-step stairway. The only reason I remember by heart the number of steps on the stairs is I had repeatedly redundantly traversed them too many times on a normal day for too often not remembering the reason why I went to the kitchen, to begin with.

I had long ago conceded in writing why but not how memory was designed to be so selective [see, p.89 op. cit.]:
“Suffice to say, memory is, of necessity invariably selective.  As an organism with instincts for self-preservation, we only retain what serves to reinforce the prolongation if not perpetuation of [our] existential well-being.”
The how has become a fertile field of scholarly inquiry, both theoretical and experimental.  Where it once was confined in the province of philosophy it had subsequently transitioned into psychology and biology.
. . . psychologists and biologists have joined forces to open up the “black box” to study how the brain and behavior allows us to learn and have memories. . . . now be[ing] studied at two different but complementary levels, one aimed at brain structure, circuitry and behavior, and the other aimed at individual nerve cells and the molecules within nerve cells.
It certainly was never my intention to venture into so esoteric a domain of knowledge as the neurobiology of memory.  What piqued my curiosity was an incident which bordered on the bizarre and has left me befuddled and scratching my head for explanation.  It behooves to be narrated with some detail in the hope that it might usher in a modicum of comprehension into the dynamics of memory recall.

I was watching a late night TV rerun of the final round coverage of the Humana Challenge (previously The Bob Hope) PGA Tour golf tournament. Lying comfortably on my back to relax the telltale relics of the compression fracture on my lumbar vertebrae from the 30-Jun-11 traffic mishap, out of nowhere I was seized with the irresistible urge to remember the first name of the girl who was my daughter’s high school friend.  Or at least she was the only one of my daughter’s friends who had visited our house in more than two occasions.

For all of ninety-three to ninety-eight minutes I latched in vain onto every morsel of imagery that I could grasp in my memory banks.  The most curious thing about the incident was that there was absolutely nothing in what I was watching or consciously thinking of during the interval which could provoke her floating into my memory field.  The main remarkable thing about her name was the surname being Tabora and my daughter Renata’s married surname was Tobar.  Admittedly, the sort of phonetic inversion was noteworthy if not remarkable.

Before the eureka moment came at the end of the ninety-five or so minutes of agonizingly trying to come up with her first name, the names that came parading in my mind were Grazina, Serena and Selina.  About which, without exactly knowing how, I was dead certain they were the wrong ones.  Then just as suddenly and inexplicably, the correct name popped up: Suzanna.  By then without any proof at my disposal I was equally sure it was the first name I was missing.  My wife did later verify the answer to be correct.

The relevant question(s) I reckon should be 1) how did the urge to recall get triggered; and 2) what brought in the once elusive correct answer?  I had scanned through my recent activities (which are currently very limited due to the state of my physical health) and the ninety-five minute interval trying to arrive at Suzanna.

The only activity I had remotely relevant to the process of remembering consisted of the following experience totally unrelated to Suzanna, but very germane to the project of memory recall:

The day before, 18-Jan-14, Mina shared on Facebook a picture of her father, Farid and me.  Incidentally, although I met Mina once in Princeton, NJ before she got associated with Columbia University, I have not been accorded the privilege of becoming her Facebook friend.  This particular picture was one of the images included in my last book [see p. 116 op. cit.] and the only one I have with Farid who was my college days colleague for a good part of eight or so years.

One of Mina’s Facebook friends was impressed by the picture.  He inquired as to the year it was taken.  Having known for certain that the picture was from my book because of the captions, I felt it my professional obligation as a matter of courtesy to volunteer the information~>New Year’s Day 1968.

This was promptly disputed by Farid who argued that based on the evidence that he was wearing a necktie, it could not possibly have been taken during our years in Kyoto.  I had to conjure up more circumstantial evidence to buttress my earlier deductive conclusion.  Considering that these arguments won the day for me, I deem it proper to excerpt it here in full (edit proofed):

Farid, I hope you’ll not ever write your memoir. You got not only the city and the year both wrong, you also got the Japanese family mixed up. There were three people instrumental in recruiting foreign students in the Kyodai Ryugakusei Tomonokai (a.k.a. Kyoto University Foreign Students’ Fellowship Society), of which I became the president in our third year. They were: Inoue-san (Physics), Iwanaga-san (Civil Engineering), and Iwasaki-san (Mechanical Engineering). 

Only Inoue-san was a native resident of Kyoto. He was in the best position to invite us to share his family holidays with us. Besides, he had two very cute younger sisters who were not studying at Kyodai. Moreover, in 1965 we were still in Chiba Foreign Students College. You moved with the Iranian crowd and I stayed with the Filipino crowd. The only Iranian-Filipino interface in social activities was due to Joe Laraya (Todai, electronics) having had a very charming (and rather friendly) Iranian girlfriend. Need I say more?

I still am at a loss as to how could Mina share the picture because I have not uploaded it into Facebook.  Other than sending the images to the publisher FriesenPress, I did not post the picture anywhere.  I could only surmise that she could have purchased the electronic (kindle) edition of the book and shared it therefrom. 

I just verified that the last hyperlink above redirects the user to the top of Farid’s Facebook page and not to the shared picture.  Therefore, I find it expediently prudent to insert the picture in question from the original archived source, before the captions which I ended up importing from Mina’s SHAREd copy:

Invited to first New Year's Day in Kyoto household of Inoue san (left), me (middle), Farid (right)

After further ruminations on the circumstantial evidence that I relied upon to arrive at my conclusion on the date of the picture, I can now conceivably concede that it could have been the very first New Year we had in Kyoto which would place it in 1967.  It really should not matter much.  What is a couple of years to give or take among friends?

 Oh, questions, and more questions, yet no more
          Do answers come than mermaids come to shore
          To build a rainbow bridge across the gulf
          So broken dreams may blissfully recur.
~~Asumen, In Retrospect [p.165,cf pp.160ff]

It behooves to be cognizant though that remembering and forgetting are just the two sides of the memory recall equation.  Adhering to the adage that a picture speaks a thousand words, I am content to leave the picture to speak for itself and let you draw your own conclusion.

With resignation, I join Tennyson in invocation:

O strengthen me, englighten me!
I faint in this obscurity,
Thou dewy dawn of memory.

~~Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ode to Memory


  1. One of Mina's friends who I did subsequently befriended on Facebook informed me that he ordered my book:

    Mehdi Kalantari Mr. Asumen, I just ordered kindle copy of flirting with misadventures on Amazon. Looking forward to reading your memoir.

    I sincerely wish him luck. I hope he would at leas find it an interesting, more than a challenging read.

  2. Another disconcerting episode which seems to occur more often than I’d prefer these days is wanting to Google-search a text string and forgetting the text string altogether by the time the search dialog box is open. It’s very frustrating to say the least.

  3. In comparing notes on our first meeting, my wife and I could have been in different hemispheres. Here’s how:

    (1) I recalled her knocking on the window between the porch and the living room while I was soaking myself in the bath tub after a round of golf. It was past 15:00 hours on the Friday before the July 4th weekend. My Puerto Rican live-in housekeeper from the U.S. Virgin Islands took the weekend off because she went to St. Thomas. Although I was annoyed at my bathing was interrupted, on noticing two ladies on the porch, I did not want to miss anything. I hurriedly dried myself and went to the porch.
    (2) After exchanging pleasantries, I asked her what her vocation was and she laughingly remarked that “like everybody else who comes from Poland, she makes a living cleaning houses.” My impression then was (to myself) “here’s a charming female who is not embarrassed of the menial character of her vocation.” That was a good part of why I was endeared to her.
    (3) She, on the other hand maintains that she met me for the first time when they were actually moving in at 23:00 hours the Sunday before July 4th. She was convinced I was just coming home from work. I was between consulting engagement when we met.
    (4) Be that as it may, I have learned in the twenty-three years or so that we have been together that I never win an argument with her. So I just let it go by saying, “whatever you say.”

    1. One point of clarification: I met my wife when our daughter’s family moved into the 2nd floor of a two-family house. I occupied the first and ground floors of the same building.