Weekend Open Mind:
Consciousness and Memory

Yesterday morning, I woke up early, and almost at once found myself meditating on consciousness and memory — and self-consciousness. I’m thinking of “self-consciousness” as a consciousness that is laden with memories. Mere consciousness is harder to conceive. The moment a mass of memories pushes consciousness through the doorway of self-consciousness, there is no remembering back. You may be crazy about chocolate ice cream — meaning that you’re aware that you like chocolate ice cream a lot. This is something about yourself that you know. But I’ll bet that you had more than a few bowls of chocolate ice cream before you “realized” that you really like it. (Children often claim to be crazy about things, but what they’re usually crazy about it appearing to be like the friends whom they admire.) Learning to like chocolate ice cream for real means enjoying it in silence at least a couple of times. And you don’t just understand that you like chocolate ice cream. You understand that you’ve liked it all along. But what was that, exactly, your consciousness of chocolate ice cream — your awareness that you were eating it — before the memories piled up and you realized that you were crazy about it? What was happening in the “all along”? It was possibly something like this: a string of impressions too weak to impinge on memory. I’m using “consciousness” and “memory” very loosely here, without trying to capture the neurological activity that in fact sparks our sense of consciousness and of memory.

It seems to me that self-consciousness becomes obtrusive — as we all feel it to be — when the baggage of memories muffles direct experience. Knowing that we’re eating chocolate ice cream, we don’t bother to taste it. This leads to the nightmare of what D H Lawrence called “sex in the head.”

Beyond self-consciousness, there is self-awareness — knowing not so much that you know what you’re conscious of but that there are other things that you might be conscious of, had life worked out differently. You accept the accidental nature of your self. The accidents are all very small, nothing like the somewhat violent events that we call “accidents” in real life. Accidents of consciousness are tiny, and there are thousands of them every morning, as your self reconstitutes itself — by means of reconsolidating each memory in the act of remembrance, from your wife’s breathing to the way to the bathroom. The accidents are so densely networked that inertia preserves the illusion of uneventful continuity.

Little children — infants and toddlers — are conscious (of course), but they’re not self-conscious; they don’t generate memories of themselves. We can speculate as to why. There is too much else to remember. It may be that self-consciousness is catalyzed by hormones or other brain chemicals that don’t develop in children. Or it may be that children are so completely at the center of their own universes that there is no reason to demarcate a self. In any case, children do not remember their earliest years, much as we wish that they could.

Of course there are memories that do not reach consciousness. How to walk, for example: the coordination of many (dozens? hundreds?) of “muscle memories.” Some organic processes are so profound and invariant (and crucial) that it seems silly to speak of memory at all. Does the heart remember to beat? Is it useful to associate every repeated action with memory of some kind, or is it vacuous? If the heart beats without memory, and the lungs draw breath according to some renewing instinct, so that each breath is the first, then how far “down” does memory go? There is no point in trying to answer such questions now, given how little is known. But memory and consciousness are wonderful things to play with.

I did not go back to sleep.

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