THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY: PART I
I'VE been thinking lately about memory and creativity. Or, actually, memory vs. creativity. Let me start out by telling a story.
THE SILKY: I love stories!
This one is about a young Frenchman, who lived about a hundred and fifty years ago. He was employed by a French winemaker to work on problems related to fermentation of wine, and while separating out one of the components of wine, tartaric acid, an organic acid, he noticed that when crystallized, it formed two different sorts of crystals. They looked almost exactly alike, but when he examined them closely, he noticed that one seemed to be a mirror image of the other. Curious, he separated the crystals with a tweezers, and found that one type of crystal, when dissolved in water, refracted light in the opposite direction from the other type of crystal. And thus was born the concept of optical isomers, an idea that had profound implications for organic and biochemistry. The young chemist was 26 at the time, and to non-chemists, is probably better known for his later development of the pasteurization of wine (this being France) and milk, and the invention of a vaccine for rabies. His name was Louis Pasteur.
What I find most interesting about this story is the fact that Pasteur saw what no one else could see. Many, many organic compounds exhibit optical isomerism, and chemists had been looking at their crystals for generations. But no one else had noticed that some crystals were mirror images of others, though it was right in front of their noses. Pasteur looked at what everyone else had looked at, but saw what no one else had seen.
We all form ideas about the world. We form a theoretical framework for thinking about what we see and experience each day, although we may not call it that. We then fit the day's events and sensations into that framework, mostly without thinking about it. There's a light, with red, yellow, and green lenses. It must be a traffic light. It's red now, so I should stop. This person is raising her voice to me. That means she's angry. To accomplish anything with her, I must find a way to defuse her anger and return the relationship to stability. My wrist hurts. I banged it while playing ball with the grandkids a week ago, so it must be sprained.
We have to do this. Forming ideas about how the world works is what we do best as human beings, it's what separates us from all other animals, it what makes science and art work, it's the core behind our technology and our civilization. The problem is that all of our ideas about the world are 'best guesses'. There's no way to validate them. All are approximations of reality, all our ideas are attempts to read the shadows flickering on the walls of Plato's cave, and to divine from them the shape of the objects that cast them. Some of our ideas are more reliable than others. The idea that the thing with red, yellow, and green lights hanging over the intersection is a traffic light is almost always correct. The idea that the person raising her voice is angry is usually correct, but is sometimes in error; perhaps the person was raised in a household where the general noise level was high, and whenever you wanted to communicate with someone about something important, you had to raise your voice. And the guy with the painful wrist actually has the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, his wrist pain has nothing to do with the minor injury a week before. But he can't imagine pain coming from nowhere, so he has to find some way to fit his pain into his concept of things that cause pain.
How many chemists had looked at tartaric acid crystals before Louis Pasteur, without seeing that they formed two different sorts of crystals? It was a single compound, and a compound forms one type of crystal. Of course the crystals were all the same.
We see what we expect to see. It takes the unusual individual to pierce that wall of expectations, to see that reality isn't matching the theoretical framework we have developed so that we may understand it, that the theoretical framework must be changed to account for new information.
Memory and expectations are at war with creativity and understanding.
In English, too, an inflexible person is said to be 'hard-headed', and
we speak cattle as a number of 'head' of cattle. It's curious how
expressions may be parallel in two completely different languages.
meaning: head, top, start, counter for large animals
石頭 == ishiatama == inflexible ('hard [stone] headed')
赤頭巾 == akazukin == Little Red Riding Hood
Left radical is 'bean/vessel', (豆), right is 'head'. Henshall suggests as a
mnemonic: 'Head is bean-like vessel'.
In English, too, an inflexible person is said to be 'hard-headed', and we speak cattle as a number of 'head' of cattle. It's curious how expressions may be parallel in two completely different languages.