Writing Ones Past

The past and future are fiction, only the present is real. This isn’t some deep philosophical point; your Will, the part of you that exerts control on reality, can only act in the present. We see a connection between the present conscious mind and the ones that preceded it (and the ones that will likely follow it). This isn’t backed up in a physical way. Multi-cellular organisms will replace their cells so often in a lifetime that no individual cell exists from birth to death. Raw physicality won’t show you to be a continuous entity. Your mind changes over time too. At best we’re patterns of information, imprinted on a steadily changing substrate, with no consistent pattern of said information. I don’t wish to belabour the point so I will recommend a great book on the subject, “The Mind’s eye”, by Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter.

Memory is notoriously fallible. We don’t admit it often, but we misremember things all the time. And that’s okay. It’s only a problem if you think the past is something set in stone. A fixed part of reality so to speak. Sure, you can’t actually go back and change things, but the idea that it’s a concrete thing is just as silly. It doesn’t actually exist somewhere, it can’t be held and it can’t be tested. It’s a useful assumption to believe it exists, nothing more.

If you think memory is accurate, it can be shown as unreliable in two ways. The first is doing tests on memory, using recorded data to verify. Additionally, you can ask participants how confident they are in their memory, to show how false our confidence is. It’s been done and the results are clearly against our amazing ability to remember things. People will regularly claim to be sure of an event or the appearance of something, which is subsequently shown to be incorrect. This is not to say we can’t remember anything, or course we can. Our abilities are far from perfect and confidence in a memory does not equate with increased accuracy.  

The second way is to try to understand how the brain forms memory, tackling it from a hardware perspective. Our memories are imprinted onto patterns of neurons. Remembering things causes a rewrite of said memory, that’s how we retain them over long periods of time. That rewrite process can literally imprint the memory with your current mental perspective on the event. This happens every single time you remember it. That’s what remembering actually is. So it will obviously change over time. Hence it being unreliable. This last part is speculation on my part, so take it with a grain of salt. When a memory is bound up with strong emotions, remembering it will cause a stronger re-imprint. More powerful emotions will lead the conscious mind to think harder on a memory, replaying it repeatedly in a single sitting. This can magnify the memory in whatever direction the mind is currently interpreting it.

“Well then”, you may say, “what about physical artifacts from the past, surely those are concrete evidence of the past?”

Well no, not really. Those only exist in the present tense world. It’s not a pedantic point because the current state of an item doesn’t directly show it’s history. There are many ways any particular item could have ended up where it was. A manuscript from 10 years ago could have been written as if it were from 1000 years ago. We have ways to test things, like carbon dating, but every test has limitations. Some only work on short time scales, some only on long term scales with the margin of error in centuries, and all of them are limited to what materials they work with. That’s all speaking about long term history but short term is just as challenging. Look at crime scene evidence (not the silliness on TV, actual police investigation) and you’ll see just how challenging it can be to reconstruct a single day from within the last couple months. The amount of information that can be gleaned from physical remnants of the past has a startlingly steep decline.

It’s certainly more accurate in the long term compared to memory, but ultimately it’s just as fallible. The fact of the matter is that in order to understand any artifact, one must create a history which includes that item.
A history.
A story.

A major change in the human’s relationship to the past has occurred recently. Social media. We have an unprecedented ability to record and analyse our world. A major component of social media is a log of ones life. Photos, parties, weddings, graduations; we catalogue them all. When we post about a boring day or a shitty day or the most beautiful day we’ve had; we’re writing our past. It’s a degree of control that few humans have had access to until very recently. Before then it was always in the hands of someone else to write your history (if it was ever deemed worth recording). Now we curate and edit our past selves. It’s an empowering thing to do.

It can also smack of narcissism.

When someone is spending more time taking photos of their life than actually living it (whatever the hell that means), what they’re doing is writing their story. The past as a fiction, with the self as the protagonist. It is unquestionably narcissistic, yet so is consciousness. As long as they’re aware of the inherent narcissism and they keep it in check, there’s nothing wrong with it. You have every right to try and write your own story because you are the owner of your past. 

If you’re not a good author though, no one will care.


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