Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Memory Corruption"

I've been looking at several hours of video tape I took (from 1990-92) that has been sleeping in one closet or another unwatched over the past 16-18 years. Somewhat expected has been the sensation of coming face to face with several of my own personal experiences that I had forgotten happened. While watching these experiences again, most of them come back, but some seem strangely missing.

That's not too big of a deal, but what was almost completely unexpected and a bit dismaying are some experiences I have often remembered over the years, that - now that I'm watching them exactly as they happened, enshrined on the tape - I'm shocked to discover that the version in my memory, which I had believed to be spot-on accurate, is often slightly different than the version on the videotape, which I must believe - especially since I took it myself! But more on that aspect later....

Back to forgotten memories. One example is three hours of tape I took in and around Tokyo Station on a single day in 1991. I had obviously decided to focus on Tokyo Station and I spent an entire day and evening there walking the platforms, diving into trains for a few minutes before they began a new journey (Tokyo is a terminal stop for some lines, so there's enough of a lag between arrival and the next departure in the opposite direction, to have a quick look inside), walking in the hallways of the Tokyo Station Hotel (now defunct), and walking around the surrounding station area a little.

A bit of time and effort went into that, and yet I can't remember making a decision to do it... well... wait... after thinking about it for the past 36 hours or so, I seem to remember deciding to focus on something in detail instead of doing my usual deal where I would get off at one station, walk around all day in one direction or another, and then, late in the evening, look for a train line - any train line - to begin the journey home on. But it's a faint memory and I can't quite remember myself doing what I see myself doing in the video images taken that day. Obviously, spending a day exploring Tokyo Station wasn't interesting enough to me to warrant thinking about again after I had done it. And so the memory was lost, and I find myself looking at myself (I used to periodically record myself at arm's length making commentary) and the very things I saw from my own vantage point, and it almost seems like it's another person doing what I'm watching. (In one sense it was - 17 years have wrought a different man in some ways.)

Now... for the really disturbing aspect to looking again at my life recorded on videotape in 1991. In watching the things I have remembered and thought about over the years, I kept wondering why my memory didn't hold on to a precisely accurate recording of what happened. It was fairly accurate, but why not spot-on 100% accurate? In the middle of reviewing the tapes, I listened to a radio interview with a researcher who has been studying how people's brains work, and there was a fascinating thing that came up in the discussion about how memory works. Apparently the researchers discovered that, rather than the brain re-accessing a static recording of an event, when it is recalled and thought about, it is overwrite re-recorded! So just recalling it, thinking about it, and remembering it, alters it! Revelation! Shock! Dismay! No wonder PR and advertising work only too well! Hammer away at people and give them an altered, inaccurate version of the truth (otherwise known as lies) and the brain will have a tendency to believe the story as fact after a while.

Groan! We're doomed! Well... wait. There is recording! Writing, cameras, video.... By way of (frivolous) example, thanks to my videotape, I can now give you a far more accurate view of 1991 than I could have before revisiting 1991 via the tapes (and there are a lot of them - 20 hours for June alone). Modern TV shows and movies here in Japan now portray the "bubble economy" years as a time of living it up, but that was only true for a very tiny percentage of the population. When I see kids playing on a shitamachi street in my 1991 video, it brings to mind how inaccurate modern portrayals of the time are. And I was there! Even though I was in Japan for every single day of the bubble years, the modern movies still influenced my memories of the times! History from previous generations? I have to wonder how accurate it can be if very recent history is already distorted!

The conclusion must be that recording things (by writing them down, taking photos, etc.) is absolutely vital to maintaining some kind of accuracy in history.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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