Littell's Living Age/Volume 136/Issue 1751/Forgetfulness

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From The Spectator.


In the October number of Mind, — which keeps up its high standard of scholarly thoroughness in all its papers, though it might, we think, give at times rather more space than it does to subjects of general interest, without sacrificing anything in that direction, — there is a thoughtful paper on "Forgetfulness," by Mr. Verdon, in which the writer argues with a good deal of force against the now rather prevalent notion that there is no such thing as total forgetfulness, that under adequate conditions every modification the mind has passed through may be restored, and recognized as the representative in memory of what had once before been presented in direct experience. Sometimes people will tell you that in the process of losing consciousness by drowning, they have, in a moment or two, passed through, in vision, the whole of the experience of their previous lives, including incidents which, so far as they knew, they had completely and absolutely forgotten. Now, of course, statements of this kind are necessarily very vague, and hardly capable of verification. Those who give such evidence, if cross-examined, would not probably maintain that they really passed through in vision the long line of all the purely mechanical actions of their lives, all the times they had yawned, or coughed, or sneezed, or bummed a tune, every crossing of a t and dotting of an i in every line written by them from childhood to the date of the drowning, — that all the motes that they had once seen in a sunbeam had been seen again in the same order as before; they can hardly mean all this. What they do probably mean is simply that all the more stirring incidents of their life which had become deeply engraved on their memory before by their association with some grave action or strong passion, some deep emotion, or some serious pang of remorse, recur at such a time in due order. If they mean more than this, there is this great difficulty about the statement, — that we are all of us absolutely incompetent to say of the greater part of our least interesting experiences, whether they are faithfully represented in memory or not. Let any man walk down two or three yards of a busy street. Of course a vast number of impressions are made on his retina and on his ears; probably a good many associated ideas pass rapidly through his mind; one or two odors will be perceived; he will feel the pavement with his feet and his stick in two or three different places; and he will have some sort of notion of the warmth or coldness of the air through which he passes or, at least, of the changes of temperature. Now, within (say) three minutes, let him repeat the very same walk, and take all the pains in the world to note the similarities and differences in what he experiences. We are very certain that even though the person in question were a Charles Dickens himself, he will simply not be able to assure himself whether or not he saw before man things that he sees now, and heard before many things that he hears now. He will not know whether or not he treads on precisely the same spots on the pavement as before, and laces his stick on the same; he will not now whether the currents of air meet him in precisely the same places; and he will not know whether or not the same associations pass through his mind in precisely the same order. Now, if this be so when a man repeats, as nearly as the changes of the external world admit, the same experiences within three minutes, for the very purpose of recognizing all that is recognizable, and discriminating what is different, — it stands to reason that in a review of life, however vivid it may be, occurring many years after most of the events reviewed, it would be simply impossible to say whether all the images which pass in vision before you are or are not real memorial pictures of your former experience. If your original perceptions are so vague, — as in ninety-nine cases out of every hundred of half-attentive perception they are, — that within the next five minutes you are unable to say whether they are repeated accurately or not, how is it conceivable that under any spell whatever you can be quite sure that they have been repeated accurately at the interval of many ears? We can only remember distinctly what we have vividly experienced. If the first experience is blurred and faint, the best conceivable return of it to memory must be blurred and faint also; nor can we usually, in the case of a blurred and faint first-hand experience, recall, even immediately, the degree in which each part of the image was thus blurred and faint. We confess, therefore, that we agree with Mr. Verdon in entertaining the profoundest doubt of the truth of the now rather common assumption that memory may one day restore to our recognition every experience of our past life. We should say that a very large part of life is consumed in experiences so little unique and so very like thousands of other experiences, that even it they did recur to our mind's eye in precisely the same form as before, we should be unable to affirm with confidence that they were the same. If the twenty thousand dinners that a middle-aged man had eaten were all to be paraded with the most faithful accuracy before his imagination, how is he, who probably hesitates in the witness-box whether or not the claimant before him be his own old friend or an impostor who closely resembles him, to swear to their identity? There are no doubt such things as infallible attestations of memory. if five minutes ago l were meditating a great crime or a great deed of any sort, I know that this was so, as well as I know where I am now. But as to ninety-nine hundredths of the minutiæ of human existence, memory, even when fresh, refuses to attest anything with absolute certainty. And it is at least exceedingly diflicult, even if not quite impossible, to suppose that what memory could not attest at all when the event on which it was questioned was quite fresh, it could infallibly attest when that event was the vanishing point of a long past.

We hold, then, with Mr. Verdon that there is no real ground for supposing that all past states of consciousness must be recoverable and identifiable by us as the veritable states through which we actually passed. As a general rule, it is only moments of somewhat vividly concentrated life that we can positively attest in memory at any great distance of time; while common and commonplace experiences can hardly be discriminated clearly from each other even at the shortest intervals. We believe that in every man's life there are not only many experiences which have not been distinct enough when they occurred to be clearly and faithfully remembered, but also many which are so often partially repeated without critical and momentous differences, that even the most complete restoration of some of them in consciousness could not be identified individually, but only as types.

But nothing that we have said must be interpreted as throwing any doubt on the well-established fact that what has once been thoroughly well known, though since apparently quite forgotten, in consequence of the displacing power of new associations and new habits, may be brought back into full recollection again by any circumstances, — such, for instance, as those of a fever, — which in their turn obliterate the more immediate present, and set the mind working again in the old grooves. Nobody can doubt the truth of some of the stories of people who in illness have repeated sentences from a language quite unknown to them in their ordinary state, but which, as is subsequently ascertained, were impressed on their ear in childhood or youth, by hearing them constantly repeated, till at last these sentences had become as familiar to them as the inarticulate cries of London are to one who has long lived in the London streets, cries which, in like manner, disappear from the memory, so soon as the ear ceases to be familiar with them. And these stories certainly prove that anything which has once been thoroughly familiar may be revived again in the memory, by striking the proper key-note in the music of old association, — at least if it be struck at a time when the mind is shut out from the disturbing influence of immediate practical interests, and temporarily imprisoned in the past. All this is in no way inconsistent with what we have been maintaining, — namely, that it is impossible to distinguish clearly in memory what you have never distinguished clearly even in direct knowledge, that you cannot surely recognize what you have never surely known. You may certainly have the most vivid recognition of things very long indeed forgotten, and as you would suppose, absolutely forgotten, supposing always that they were once thoroughly familiar, as almost every one must have experienced at times even in dreams. But then what is it that has apparently obliterated these familiar things from memory? It is the claim on the attention of a long succession of other duties and interests, and if these for a time be excluded, even though only by the images of a dream which diverts the mind into long-deserted tracks, there is no reason at all why the old attitude of mind should not be resumed, and when resumed, should not appear as fresh and natural as ever. Moreover, nothing is more likely to be suddenly revived in this way than a long-disused mechanical habit, with some old link in the chain of which the eye or ear suddenly finds itself again in contact. All experience shows that as nothing is so easy as to forget mere words and names, even when the things they represent are quite clearly before the mind, so the only way to recollect them is not so much to dwell on them, as to get into some well-worn groove of habit, by the help of which you come upon them unawares, in the midst of equally familiar words. Thus it has been noted that even people who suffer from that very serious disease of the brain called aphasia, almost always swear correctly, indeed say anything correctly which they are not trying to say, but which just completes a chain of old associations. Aphasic patients can scold the servants — an operation in which they are started, as it were, by a habit, rather than by a set purpose — when they cannot even get nearer to the word "moon" than to cal it "that public light," or to the word "card" than "cigar." Carried back into an old groove of habit, they will run straight, though if they were to pick their own way, they would go blundering from side to side. Thus the man who forgot his most intimate friend's name, when he wanted to introduce him, recovered it at once in the mere swing of the familiar imprecation with which he said, "Confound you, Robinson, what is your name?" But the ease of the process of recovering such a dropped stitch in the memory, if you can only go back a few stitches and come upon it with the momentum of an old habit, is no argument at all in favor of the proposition that complete forgetfulness is impossible. For the truth is, that a very great proportion of our lives is made up, not of habitual actions which come quite pat, but of half-perceived, half-discriminated, half-grasped circumstances, which we could not clearly recall the next instant, for the very excellent reason that they were not clearly presented to us when they were presented. Anything which the mind has once really made its own, it may recur to, even long after it had seemed to be obliterated; but what has never been its own when it was first in contact with our thought, cannot become so in memory. You may disinter a long-buried train of associations, as you may disinter an old Roman road long hidden by the superincumbent dust of ages. But then the train of associations must have been there, and must have been firmly welded together once, before it can be possible to disinter it. Great portions of our lives are unrememberable simply because they have never been vividly lived, and indeed, in all the minutiæ of their detail, hardly could have been vividly lived at all. If you don't know what you see at the time you see it, it is no great fault of the memory if you cannot remember it when you see it no longer.