The fabric of memory

Freudian slips happen all the time. You mean to say one thing but end up uttering something completely different or even contradictory. Sometimes the results are hilarious, at other times they may turn out to be more serious than you could ever anticipate. Especially when the situation calls for tact and diplomacy, if not formality. According to Sigmund Freud, the hallowed father of modern psychoanalysis, so-called slips-of-the-tongue are not fortuitous, but reflect instead our actual repressed needs and desires.

However, it has been my observation, time and time again, that errors produced while we speak are by no means confined to the realm of psychosis or neurosis or mere timidity. There are all kinds of slips of the tongue, a lot of which can be given purely mechanical explanations based on scientific models of language. In connection to this, there is a kind of linguistic research that looks at tip-of-the-tongue phenomena. These occur when speakers try to recall a term or a name or place or event known to them, but for some reason the information is not forthcoming. When this curious event occurs, a host of information may come to mind, data that is somehow related to that piece of information we just know we know, we’ve got it on the tip of our tongue.

According to the theory behind this research, what happens is that the brain, presumably due to some kind of biochemical misfiring, misses the intended target, like an archer who’s having a bad day, and hits instead whatever else is around it. This kind of research might prove to be extremely useful in figuring out and mapping out how our brains store linguistic information and perhaps information in general. For example, I might try to recall the name of a friend I had in college and come up with the name George while a little voice inside me tells me that’s not quite right. Taken to its extremes, this kind of experience could turn out to be quite maddening, sort of like when you are in hurry to get out of the house and you can’t find your wallet.

Contrary to what we usually do, which is run around the house like a chicken with its head cut off, looking under the bed, inside the fridge and even through the dust bin, possessed by a paroxysm that only ends up exhausting us and leaving us no alternative but to collapse defeated on the first soft surface we see, we should skip all the previous steps and just collapse. It is precisely at that point of complete rest that the brain will go back to work for us in its unerring fashion, giving us the answer we stressed out so much on. We call this momentous event remembering.

This brings to mind another curious phenomenon reported by many famous scientists and thinkers of all ilks, and that is when someone like Albert Einstein, for instance, works hard at finding a solution to some mathematical problem or other and goes at it all day long without ever getting even close to it. Eventually, night falls and Professor Einstein goes to sleep, and in his sleep, he has a dream, and in the dream, the solution to his problem is laid out, nice and simple. Upon waking the next day, he runs to his blackboard before even putting his clothes on and writes out the solution he saw in his dream, which happens to be perfect.

I can see no other explanation to this but that our brains are wonderful machines that do all the work for us, if we ask them, and if we give them time to do it. The time element is key. In a society when time is more and more precious, because everything keeps getting faster, stress is a given. And it is stress that makes an archer miss his target. An empty mind can easily see where it wants to go, whereas a mind cluttered with at times too much information may need time to get around the labyrinth it has created for itself. Sometimes I think that’s why we created computers, so we could stop thinking. Maybe that was our deep seated desire. I wonder what Freud might think.

But getting back to my friend from college, I finally remembered that his name is not George but Roger. Upon scientific examination of the linguistic kind, anyone will come up with the same answer: my brain simply inverted the Gs with the Rs. In this case, stress was probably not the reason, just like it wasn’t some deep-seated psychological shortcoming of mine I may not be aware of. In this case, I believe, the reason is still time, albeit a different dimension of it. Like everything in this universe, memory too has an expiration date, and as it gets closer to that, it begins to fade.

More than anything in the world, currently operational thermonuclear power plants need clear and precise maintenance procedures. It is also conceivable that they might go off duty at some point in the future, perhaps generations from now. These gigantic contraptions cannot be turned off simply by throwing a switch, complex procedures are needed here too. And here is the kicker: the information that future scientists and operators will need to take down these behemoths cannot be stored on modern computer devices, because they have a short shelf life due to the materials they are made of. This is why scientists have devised a specially treated paper-like substance that’s virtually indestructible.

Hopefully, there will be linguists in the future who will decipher the information written on that superpaper in a language by then obsolete, or else there will be big trouble! Boom!

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