Category Archives: Essays

False Memories, Source Confusion and “Autoplagarism”, Oliver Sacks (2013)

Memento

A fascinating essay by Oliver Sacks, from The New York Review of Books. If you have ever questioned the validity of your own memories or wondered where your more abstract inspirations may bubble up from, unprompted or seemingly without a specific frame of reference…

“In 1993, approaching my sixtieth birthday, I started to experience a curious phenomenon—the spontaneous, unsolicited rising of early memories into my mind, memories that had lain dormant for upward of fifty years. Not merely memories, but frames of mind, thoughts, atmospheres, and passions associated with them—memories, especially, of my boyhood in London before World War II. Moved by these, I wrote two short memoirs, one about the grand science museums in South Kensington, which were so much more important than school to me when I was growing up; the other about Humphry Davy, an early-nineteenth-century chemist who had been a hero of mine in those far-off days, and whose vividly described experiments excited me and inspired me to emulation. I think a more general autobiographical impulse was stimulated, rather than sated, by these brief writings, and late in 1997, I launched on a three-year project of writing a memoir of my boyhood, which I published in 2001 as Uncle Tungsten.1

I expected some deficiencies of memory—partly because the events I was writing about had occurred fifty or more years earlier, and most of those who might have shared their memories, or checked my facts, were now dead; and partly because, in writing about the first fifteen years of my life, I could not call on the letters and notebooks that I started to keep, assiduously, from the age of eighteen or so.

I accepted that I must have forgotten or lost a great deal, but assumed that the memories I did have—especially those that were very vivid, concrete, and circumstantial—were essentially valid and reliable; and it was a shock to me when I found that some of them were not.

A striking example of this, the first that came to my notice, arose in relation to the two bomb incidents that I described in Uncle Tungsten, both of which occurred in the winter of 1940–1941, when London was bombarded in the Blitz:

One night, a thousand-pound bomb fell into the garden next to ours, but fortunately it failed to explode. All of us, the entire street, it seemed, crept away that night (my family to a cousin’s flat)—many of us in our pajamas—walking as softly as we could (might vibration set the thing off?). The streets were pitch dark, for the blackout was in force, and we all carried electric torches dimmed with red crêpe paper. We had no idea if our houses would still be standing in the morning.

On another occasion, an incendiary bomb, a thermite bomb, fell behind our house and burned with a terrible, white-hot heat. My father had a stirrup pump, and my brothers carried pails of water to him, but water seemed useless against this infernal fire—indeed, made it burn even more furiously. There was a vicious hissing and sputtering when the water hit the white-hot metal, and meanwhile the bomb was melting its own casing and throwing blobs and jets of molten metal in all directions.

A few months after the book was published, I spoke of these bombing incidents to my brother Michael. Michael is five years my senior, and had been with me at Braefield, the boarding school to which we had been evacuated at the beginning of the war (and in which I was to spend four miserable years, beset by bullying schoolmates and a sadistic headmaster). My brother immediately confirmed the first bombing incident, saying, “I remember it exactly as you described it.” But regarding the second bombing, he said, “You never saw it. You weren’t there.”

I was staggered by Michael’s words. How could he dispute a memory I would not hesitate to swear on in a court of law, and had never doubted as real? “What do you mean?” I objected. “I can see the bomb in my mind’s eye now, Pa with his pump, and Marcus and David with their buckets of water. How could I see it so clearly if I wasn’t there?”

“You never saw it,” Michael repeated. “We were both away at Braefield at the time. But David [our older brother] wrote us a letter about it. A very vivid, dramatic letter. You were enthralled by it.” Clearly, I had not only been enthralled, but must have constructed the scene in my mind, from David’s words, and then appropriated it, and taken it for a memory of my own.

After Michael said this, I tried to compare the two memories—the primary one, on which the direct stamp of experience was not in doubt, with the constructed, or secondary, one. With the first incident, I could feel myself into the body of the little boy, shivering in his thin pajamas—it was December, and I was terrified—and because of my shortness compared to the big adults all around me, I had to crane my head upward to see their faces.

The second image, of the thermite bomb, was equally clear, it seemed to me—very vivid, detailed, and concrete. I tried to persuade myself that it had a different quality from the first, that it bore evidence of its appropriation from someone else’s experience, and its translation from verbal description into image. But although I now know, intellectually, that this memory was “false,” it still seems to me as real, as intensely my own, as before. Had it, I wondered, become as real, as personal, as strongly embedded in my psyche (and, presumably, my nervous system) as if it had been a genuine primary memory? Would psychoanalysis, or, for that matter, brain imaging, be able to tell the difference?

My “false” bomb experience was closely akin to the true one, and it could easily have been my own experience too. It was plausible that I might have been there; had it not been so, perhaps the description of it in my brother’s letter would not have affected me so. All of us “transfer” experiences to some extent, and at times we are not sure whether an experience was something we were told or read about, even dreamed about, or something that actually happened to us.

This is especially apt to happen with very early experiences, with one’s so-called “earliest memories.” I have a vivid memory from about the age of two of pulling the tail of our chow, Peter, while he was gnawing a bone under the hall table, of Peter leaping up and biting me in the cheek, and of my being carried, howling, into my father’s surgery in the house, where a couple of stitches were put in my cheek.

There is an objective reality here: I was bitten on the cheek by Peter when I was two, and still bear the scar of this. But do I actually remember it, or was I told about it, subsequently constructing a “memory” that became more and more firmly fixed in my mind by repetition? The memory seems intensely real to me, and the fear associated with it is certainly real, for I developed a fear of large animals after this incident—Peter was almost as large as I was at two—a fear that they would suddenly attack or bite me.

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An Interview with David Mamet, Paris Review 2013

David Mamet

The inimitable playwright, screenwriter, director and essayist speaks to The Paris Review. Here’s Alec Baldwin’s “Coffee’s for closers” speech from Mamet’s towering film adaptation of his own award-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross to whet your appetite…

“David Alan Mamet grew up in a Jewish neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, just a few blocks from Lake Michigan. His father was a labor lawyer, his mother a schoolteacher; both sides of the family came to Chicago in the 1920s, part of the city’s last wave of central European immigrants. Mamet was a child actor who attended public schools on the South Side until his parents’ divorce; later, as a teenager, he would spend several unhappy years living with his mother in Olympia Fields, a Chicago suburb on the edge of the prairie.

Like many Chicago writers, he claims to have been shaped by the city’s peculiar duality, “the admixture of the populist and the intellectual.” He would write later of perceiving the city “not as an adversary . . .[but] as an extension of our dreamlife.”

In 1964 he went off to Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, where he was graduated with “no skills, nor demonstrable talents.” Over the next several years he pursued a series of odd jobs, including a stint in the merchant marines. With the expectation of becoming an actor, he joined a theater company at McGill University, before returning to Vermont for an instructor’s position at Marlboro College.

His first play was staged in 1970, almost by accident. He had won the job at Marlboro by advertising himself as the author of a play, though in fact there was nothing to which he could truthfully lay claim. Upon his arrival he learned that his “play” was scheduled to be performed, so he hastily set about writing Lakeboat, a one-act drama taken from his experiences in the merchant marines. Lakeboat was staged before the year ended; it would set the tone for his later work and eventually become a full-length feature, one that is still performed today.

He spent only one year at Marlboro before returning to Chicago, where he worked variously as a waiter, a cabdriver and a real-estate salesman. The following autumn, having abandoned acting, he went back to Goddard, which had offered to make him its artist-in-residence. There he formed an ensemble, the St. Nicholas Theater Company, which performed the plays he had written since Lakeboat. In 1973 he moved back to Chicago, bringing with him a batch of new plays and the means to have them performed.

He spent the next four years in Chicago, writing, directing, and teaching (at Pontiac State Prison and the University of Chicago). After a rough start his plays won the admiration of both critics and audiences. In 1974 he received the Joseph Jefferson Award (given each year to the best new local play) for Sexual Perversity in Chicago. More prizes followed—two Obies in 1976, and in the same year a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for American Buffalo, which had its Broadway debut in 1977 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. In all, nine of his plays—including A Life in the Theatre, The Water Engine, Prairie du Chien, and Lone Canoe—were produced between 1975 and 1978.

In the eighties, Mamet turned part of his attention to the movies, a genre that had attracted him since childhood. He wrote screenplays for six movies (two of which he directed himself) and received an Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of The Verdict. He also published Writing in Restaurants and Some Freaks, both essay collections. New plays continued to appear almost annually, including the revised version of Lakeboat,Speed-the-Plow, Edmond, and Glengarry Glen Ross, which received both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

Since 1991 Mamet has lived in New England. At forty-nine he is the author of twenty-two plays, twelve scripts and four collections of essays. His recent work includes the screenplay for Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, the novel The Village, and three plays: Oleanna,The Cryptogram, and Death Defying Acts.

 

INTERVIEWER

How was it that you were drawn to the theater?  

DAVID MAMET

Freud believed that our dreams sometimes recapitulate a speech, a comment we’ve heard or something that we’ve read. I always had compositions in my dreams. They would be a joke, a piece of a novel, a witticism or a piece of dialogue from a play, and I would dream them. I would actually express them line by line in the dream. Sometimes after waking up I would remember a snatch or two and write them down. There’s something in me that just wants to create dialogue.  

INTERVIEWER

Can you put a date to this?  

MAMET

It’s always been going on. It’s something my mother used to say when I was just a little kid: David, why must you dramatize everything? She said it to me as a criticism—why must you dramatize everything?  

INTERVIEWER

And did you have an answer for her?  

MAMET

No, but I found out (it took me forty years) that all rhetorical questions are accusations. They’re very sneaky accusations because they masquerade as a request for information. If one is not aware of the anger they provoke, one can feel not only accused but inadequate for being unable to respond to the question.  

INTERVIEWER

That happens in your plays a lot. There are a lot of rhetorical challenges.  

MAMET

Why must you always . . .  

INTERVIEWER

One of the things that interests me is how uncompromising you are, both with yourself and the audience. The Cryptogram, for example, forces the audience to solve this puzzle that also happens to be troubling the kid in the play. You, as the author, have put the audience and the kid in essentially the same place.  

MAMET

Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.  

INTERVIEWER

Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?  

MAMET

Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective. Well, well, if it isn’t my younger brother just returned from Australia . . . have a good break? The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play.

Now, there’s a certain amount of essential information, without which the play does not make sense . . .  

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Why Do Today What You Can Put Off Until A Week On Tuesday?

Forget about that thing you have to do by tomorrow and read these two articles about procrastination instead. It’s only human nature. And, depending on who you believe, it’s either not all bad – “a practice that illuminates the fluidity of human identity and the complicated relationship human beings have to time”; Or, it’s a “weakness in the face of impulse and a failure to think about thinking…a childish primal human predilection for pleasure and novelty which can never be excised from the soul.”

You decide. Later. After you’ve checked Facebook. Or maybe at the weekend…

Here is James Surowiecki’s review of Procrastination: The Thief of Time, in The New Yorker.

And here is the excellent You Are Not So Smart’s essay.

If you can’t summon the will to click on those links, here they are in full.

The New Yorker:

Some years ago, the economist George Akerlof found himself faced with a simple task: mailing a box of clothes from India, where he was living, to the United States. The clothes belonged to his friend and colleague Joseph Stiglitz, who had left them behind when visiting, so Akerlof was eager to send the box off. But there was a problem. The combination of Indian bureaucracy and what Akerlof called “my own ineptitude in such matters” meant that doing so was going to be a hassle—indeed, he estimated that it would take an entire workday. So he put off dealing with it, week after week. This went on for more than eight months, and it was only shortly before Akerlof himself returned home that he managed to solve his problem: another friend happened to be sending some things back to the U.S., and Akerlof was able to add Stiglitz’s clothes to the shipment. Given the vagaries of intercontinental mail, it’s possible that Akerlof made it back to the States before Stiglitz’s shirts did.

There’s something comforting about this story: even Nobel-winning economists procrastinate! Many of us go through life with an array of undone tasks, large and small, nibbling at our conscience. But Akerlof saw the experience, for all its familiarity, as mysterious. He genuinely intended to send the box to his friend, yet, as he wrote, in a paper called “Procrastination and Obedience” (1991), “each morning for over eight months I woke up and decided that the next morning would be the day to send the Stiglitz box.” He was always about to send the box, but the moment to act never arrived. Akerlof, who became one of the central figures in behavioral economics, came to the realization that procrastination might be more than just a bad habit. He argued that it revealed something important about the limits of rational thinking and that it could teach useful lessons about phenomena as diverse as substance abuse and savings habits. Since his essay was published, the study of procrastination has become a significant field in academia, with philosophers, psychologists, and economists all weighing in.

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Play Ping Pong. Read Tolstoy. Daydream….and Get Smarter.

The Virtues of Daydreaming by Jonah Lehrer (via)

Humans are a daydreaming species. According to a recent study led by the Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew A. Killingsworth, people let their minds wander forty-seven per cent of the time they are awake. (The scientists demonstrated this by developing an iPhone app that contacted twenty-two hundred and fifty volunteers at random intervals during the day.) In fact, the only activity during which we report that our minds are not constantly wandering is “love making.” We’re able to focus for that.

At first glance, such data seems like a confirmation of our inherent laziness. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, mind-wandering is often derided as useless—the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think. Freud, for instance, described daydreams as “infantile” and a means of escaping from the necessary chores of the world into fantasies of “wish-fulfillment.”

In recent years, however, psychologists and neuroscientists have redeemed this mental state, revealing the ways in which mind-wandering is an essential cognitive tool. It turns out that whenever we are slightly bored—when reality isn’t quite enough for us—we begin exploring our own associations, contemplating counterfactuals and fictive scenarios that only exist within the head.

Virginia Woolf, in her novel “To The Lighthouse,” eloquently describes this form of thinking as it unfolds inside the mind of a character named Lily:

Certainly she was losing consciousness of the outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, her mind kept throwing things up from its depths, scenes and names, sayings, memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting.

A daydream is that fountain spurting, spilling strange new thoughts into the stream of consciousness. And these spurts turn out to be surprisingly useful. A forthcoming paper in Psychological Science led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara helps explain why. The experiment itself was simple: a hundred and forty-five undergraduate students were given a standard test of creativity known as an “unusual use” task, in which they had two minutes to list as many uses as possible for mundane objects such as toothpicks, bricks, and clothes hangers.

Subjects were then given a twelve-minute break. During this time, they were randomly assigned to three different conditions: resting in a quiet room, performing a difficult short-term memory task, or doing something so boring that it would elicit mind-wandering. Following this interlude, the subjects were given another round of creative tests, including the unusual-use tasks they had worked on only a few minutes before.

Here’s where things get interesting: those students assigned to the boring task performed far better when asked to come up with additional uses for everyday items to which they had already been exposed. Given new items, all the groups did the same. Given repeated items, the daydreamers came up with forty-one per cent more possibilities than students in the other conditions.

What does this mean? Schooler argues that it’s clear evidence that those twelve minutes of daydreaming allowed the subjects to invent additional possibilities, as their unconscious minds pondered new ways to make use of toothpicks. This is why the effect was limited to those items that the subjects had previously been asked about—the question needed to marinate in the mind, “incubating” in those subterranean parts of the brain we can barely control.

On a more practical note, the scientists argue that their data show why “creative solutions may be facilitated specifically by simple external tasks that maximize mind-wandering.” The benefit of these simple tasks is that they consume just enough attention to keep us occupied, while leaving plenty of mental resources left over for errant daydreams. (When people are left alone, such as those subjects forced to sit by themselves, they tend to perseverate on their problems. Unfortunately, all this focus backfires.) Consider the ping-pong tables that now seem to exist in the lobby of every Silicon Valley startup. While it’s easy to dismiss such interior decorations as mere whimsy, the game turns out to be an ideal mind-wandering activity, at least when played casually. Another task that consistently leads to extended bouts of daydreaming is reading Tolstoy. In Schooler’s earlier work on mind-wandering, he gave subjects a boring passage from “War and Peace.” The undergraduates began zoning out within seconds.

Although Schooler has previously demonstrated a correlation between daydreaming and creativity—those who are more prone to mind-wandering tend to be better at generating new ideas, at least in the lab—this new paper shows that our daydreams seem to serve a similar function as night dreams, facilitating bursts of creative insight. Take a 2004 paper published in Nature by the neuroscientists Ullrich Wagner and Jan Born. The researchers gave a group of students a tedious task that involved transforming a long list of number strings into a new set of number strings. Wagner and Born designed the task so that there was an elegant shortcut, but it could only be uncovered if the subject had an insight about the problem. When people were left to their own devices, less than twenty per cent of them found the shortcut, even when given several hours to mull over the task. The act of dreaming, however, changed everything: after people were allowed to lapse into R.E.M. sleep, nearly sixty per cent of them discovered the secret pattern. Kierkegaard was right: sleeping is the height of genius.

If this all sounds like scientific justification for afternoon naps, long showers, and Russian literature, you’re right. “We always assume that you get more done when you’re consciously paying attention to a problem,” Schooler told me. “That’s what it means, after all, to be ‘working on something.’ But this is often a mistake. If you’re trying to solve a complex problem, then you need to give yourself a real break, to let the mind incubate the problem all by itself. We shouldn’t be so afraid to actually take some time off.”

Schooler has tried to apply this hypothesis to his own life. Although he used to take piles of work with him on vacation—he’d read papers and grant proposals on the beach—he now finds that he has better ideas when he lets himself really get away. “The good news is that there’s no reason to feel guilty when taking a break or not checking your e-mail,” he says. “Because it turns out that even when you’re on vacation, the unconscious is probably still working on the problem.”

A daydream, in this sense, is just a means of eavesdropping on those novel thoughts generated by the unconscious. We think we’re wasting time, but, actually, an intellectual fountain really is spurting.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/frontal-cortex/2012/06/the-virtues-of-daydreaming.html#ixzz1xf7SyrtG

Speaking in Tongues (Zadie Smith, 2009)

“…many thousands of [British] men and women…have sloughed off their native dialects and acquired a new tongue.” – George Bernard Shaw

In the opening line of Big Changes in Black America, his brilliant appraisal of Toure’s Who’s Afraid of Blackness: What it Means to be Black Now, for the New York Review of Books, Darryl Pinckney references an essay by Zadie Smith that had appeared in the same journal in 2009 (based on a lecture given at the New York Public Library in December 2008.) Entitled Speaking in Tongues, he refers to it as “stunning”.

So, I read it. And yes, it is. It is a wonderful, rare piece of writing. One that explores connections between speech, voice, class, race and language; the “complicated back stories, messy histories [and] multiple narratives” that most of us carry; the generational, public and private conflicts over language within societies, and especially black society; pride, shame, diversified race and cultural heritage; pragmatism and “ideological heroism”; the flexibility of the voice.

Smith draws on Shakespeare, Shaw, Keats, even Cary Grant, but pivots around the extraordinary figure of Barack Obama, of whom she writes “seems just the man to demonstrate that between [those] two voices there exists no contradiction and no equivocation but rather a proper and decent human harmony.”

It is a colossal, brilliant, emotional piece of writing.

It is here. Read it.