Three Taverns Church

Anticipatory Memory

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All life is experienced as memory.

Event X occurs; your senses perceive the event and nerves transmit information to your brain; your brain processes the information into meaningful signals and symbols; you act on the processed information. By the time you act on this processed information Event X is ancient history, milliseconds or more in the past. All of life is “past” by the time you acknowledge its reality.

You think you are reading these words now, but you’re not really; you’re a few nanoseconds away from the actual words: Your eyes had to see the screen; your mind distinguished between the contrast of the background and the letters, then put the letters together into words and sentences, and then translate all of that symbology into some sort of meaning.

One thing which seems to differentiate a mentally healthy person from someone with schizophrenia is the ability to distinguish between the memories of days long past and the memories our brains are just now processing. The schizophrenic “sees” and “hears” people from their memory and experiences them as present in the “now” moment. We don’t share their unique memory (and even if we did our minds would distinguish between “past” and “not-quite-so-past”) so we don’t see or hear the same people.

Or think of a professional baseball player. When he swings, the player is anticipating the place where he thinks the thrown baseball is going to be. At the moment of physical contact between bat and ball his mind has not yet registered it as happening; he’s still a few nanoseconds away from that memory. When he realizes he’s made contact, the contact was long-ago made and he actually perceives the memory of making contact. This may explain why it takes so much practice (10,000+ hours) to become an expert at anything: We have to build up a strong memory of our talent so that we can execute “without thinking”, which really means, “without stopping to try to remember”.

This also explains why I can’t teach you something you don’t already know, that is to say, that which you don’t consciously remember. If you cannot consciously remember knowing something, you say you don’t “know” it. The first time you learn something there is no record in your memory of the lesson, so your brain files it away as something “new”. You only know you “know” upon reflection of this newly-formed memory. And of course, your “knowing”, your memory, often does not align perfectly with the physical reality of the universe, as anyone who’s ever argued with a spouse knows all too well.

What does this mean, then, that all life is experienced as memory?

First, I think it means most of our life is lived as anticipatory memory. Every moment is perceived as “now”, but is actually “past”, so that as I reach for my coffee mug I am anticipating where I remember the coffee mug to “be”, “now”. There’s an element of quantum physics there, I’m sure.

Second, I suppose it means you can’t take anything that happens too seriously. If everything you experience is experienced as memory, it’s already happened; there’s nothing you can do about it. Even the moment you consider “now” is not really “now”.  Furthermore, if you consider the fallibility of your memory, you’ve got to allow that the way you are remembering the “present moment” may not be entirely accurate. Maybe the way you remember it is, is not the way it really is. You’re just remembering the moment through your particularly flawed lens.

Third, this helps explain ideas of grace and forgiveness. God herself chooses “not to remember” our sins any longer. Well, if the present moment is anticipatory memory, then God chooses not to remember even the sins now…and now…and now… As Jesus said, “You must become like little children” to enter the kingdom of heaven. And what is it that children haven’t got? Memory, especially anticipatory memory. They don’t remember that they sinned, or that you sinned against them, and they don’t anticipate the memory of sin “now” or in the “future”.

Fourth, this helps me understand the Eastern philosophy of losing your ego to obtain enlightenment. What is ego but the collection of memories you think are “you”? Even as you read this post and decide whether you like the ideas or not, whether or not you agree with me, whether you think you could’ve written it better; these are all functions of memory. To lose your memory of “yourself” is to lose your ego. To lose the anticipatory memory of your participation of what you perceive to be “now” allows “now” to be what it is without your memory obscuring or altering what IS.

Fifth and finally, I’m wrestling with the implications of this idea as it relates to the idea of death. When a person dies, their physical body ceases functioning; the heart stops beating; the brain stops processing information; cells break down and decay, including the cells holding memory. When you die you don’t physically cease to exist because the energy and matter of your body is converted into new forms. Instead, your brain stops processing information, stops anticipating and recording memories; the memory of your “self” stops. So what “dies” is not your physical body but the memory processes associated with it. You experience death as a cessation of memory accumulation. If you placed the current moment and your moment of death on a timeline, the two points would (hopefully!) be many years apart. But all that really means is that you have not yet “remembered” that you died; you have not anticipated that particular memory yet. However, we’ve all had the dream where we “die” and suddenly wake up in a terrified, cold sweat. How could we dream of dying if we’ve not experienced it, unless we are remembering our dying?

This is quite frustrating. I feel as though I’m right on the edge of something significant, but I can’t remember what it is…

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