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The Memory Monkey

by on July 13, 2019

The Memory Monkey

by Marco M. Pardi

Our memories are independent of our wills. It is not so easy to forget.” Richard Sheridan. 1775

All comments are welcome and will receive a response.

I’m entering the age when people think I should remember episodes of childhood and youth with perfect clarity, while forgetting what I had for breakfast, or if I had breakfast. Did I take my morning medications? Should I have one of those plastic boxes partitioned like ice trays into sections for the days of the week? Oops, there I did it. I referenced ice trays, items many of our readers have no experience or conception of. I saw them at a garage sale. I did. Honest.

Of course, in our instant fix culture there are over the counter pills and potions for memory loss and other “senior moments”. Currently they generate millions of dollars in yearly sales. With only one problem: they don’t work. A just released study by the Global Council On Brain Health reports that three billion dollars were spent on these “brain” supplements in 2016 and this is expected to nearly double by 2023. Furthermore, since the Trump administration prioritizes making money for a very few people over safety for the many, the FDA and the USDA have each had their budgets cut, leaving many potentially unsafe supplements on the market with little to no oversight. Every science based examination of the claims advertised so freely reaches the same conclusion: “a massive waste of money.”

Since I habitually listen for internal contradictions in cultural messages I find the concerns about memory somewhat amusing. Whatever happened to “forgive and forget”? I can tell you that, for what it’s worth, I don’t forget. And that goes for good and bad. Forgive? I think I don’t forgive so much as I experience a tapering off of the desire to achieve revenge. Actually, I don’t like the word revenge. I prefer restoring balance, what some might call justice. I’m even okay with some other person or other circumstances meting out justice, what some would call karma, although I cannot deny the satisfaction of being the agent.

But what about this faculty of ours, this thing we call memory? Obviously, non-human animals also have it, and the case has been made for a form of it in plants as well. There are even persistent claims of “cellular memory”, citing cases of transplant recipients who find themselves with a talent or preference characteristic of their donor. But does it interrupt their sleep, or intrude on their thoughts “out of the blue”?

There have been periods in my life when I wished there were a pill or procedure to excise the memory of certain periods in my life, or at least specific aspects of them. Part of the attraction of running away when very young was the prospect of being able to “start anew”, with a history of only my own making. But I realized I could not leave my mind behind, and with it came my memories. A package. Deal with it.

Years ago I knew a young woman who, in her then defunct marriage, had become severely clinically depressed. At that time the go-to treatment was electro-shock therapy. I had been a fan of that technique in graduate school, viewing it then as I would later view re-booting my computer. Unfortunately, the procedure in those years was little advanced beyond the Frankenstein approach (“It’s alive! It’s alive!”). As a result of the treatments, rather than missing specific aspects of her past, she was missing whole sections. The procedure has been revised lately and is experiencing a cautious renaissance. But her damage was done.

But now the landscape is changing. As early as five years ago Scientific American, a very highly respected resource, ran an article on editing memory. Although the subjects involved were mice, the techniques employed were transposable to humans. Specific learning was excised from the rats’ brains. The implication is that once this is more refined it can be applied to human PTSD cases, excising the specific memories and even the trigger points if necessary. This is not “brain washing” in the 1950’s Manchurian Candidate sense; it is selective reprogramming of the brain such that the individual does not have a sense of “something missing”, as did the woman cited above.

But two questions arise: any event (as recorded as a memory) has a context. As with cancer surgery which hopes for “clean margins”, how far into the context must we cut to ensure the removal of the memory? And, what are you willing to give up?

For several years now I’ve approached unpleasant memories not as things to be suppressed – that doesn’t work anyway – but as opportunities to learn. Getting into them, and looking around, gives me a better understanding of how the events happened in the first place. This strengthens tactics and strategies to avoid a repetition. But it also offers me an opportunity to question why I keep bringing them up. Is there something not yet resolved? Sure, there have been times when I felt I was in a “snowglobe”, bad memories cascading down with near white-out force, me unable to fully grasp any particular one and fully resolve it.

Buddhist meditation teaches us about the monkey, flitting from limb to limb and chattering at us for attention. That’s the maelstrom of thoughts pouring across our minds at any given moment. Some of them are painful memories triggered, perhaps, by an unexplained association with the previous thought. Novices try to still the mind and have no thoughts, assuming that is nir vana – beyond wind. That simply cannot happen; the brain/mind matrix will continue on its way, with the additional input of the novice’s struggle. So Buddhism teaches us to let the monkey scramble about, but pay no attention to anything it does. In other words, don’t develop perception into conception. Or as the old saying goes, Don’t make something of it. When you’re in a blizzard, don’t try to see each snow flake.

Years ago I tried to learn to control my dreams. Predictably, I slid into the Am I there yet? syndrome. Maybe the best effect was that it was tiring and that helped me get to sleep.

So I’ve decided to let the monkey have its fun. Just as I decided my nightly efforts at On Demand dreams were futile, I’ve decided there are times when ignoring the monkey not only causes me to miss something I should give thought to, but it sets me up for endless re-run loops until I do. But that doesn’t mean I need to have unpleasant reactions to what the monkey is showing me. I learned in grammar school that the best way to deal with a loudmouth oaf is silence. The trick is to not let yourself become someone who “suffers in silence”.

How about you, dear reader? Does your monkey have a name?

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17 Comments
  1. I expect everyone has done, said, or experienced something they wish they could forget; I simply cannot imagine a life spent without any reason for regret. That said, I would not exchange a fortune for my memories, even the not-so-good ones. I’ve been accused of holding grudges, but I swear I don’t dwell on the bad things.

    Lately, I’ve been surrounded by good memories. My mother asked me just yesterday if I remembered something which was on her fireplace. I could tell by the look on her face that she did, so I told the “long version” tale of its acquisition. She was smiling when I finished, and that made me happy.

    As for my monkey; I see her quietly sitting in her tree, waiting for a moment of exhaustion to pounce. I pay attention when she chitters, because it’s usually about something which needs resolution. Altogether, she’s rather well behaved for her ilk. Her name is Clara.

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  2. Thank you, Rose. I, too, would not give up the bad memories. You are fortunate to have someone to whom you can give “the long version”. I get the “professor” title thrown at me when I say more than a few words.

    I haven’t named my Shaitan. But I do appreciate the diligence with which she observes my every thought, word, and deed.

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    • You are also one with whom I feel free to share the “long version” (in the proper venue, of course), I hope you feel free to do the same with me. That’s what real friends are for.

      Shaitan: Arabic for both devil and teacher; how appropriate.

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      • Thank you, Rose. Yes, I would gladly share the “long version” with you, in the appropriate venue. I knew you would be one of the very few, in this country anyway, who would understand Shaitan.

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  3. Mike Stamm permalink

    I seem to remember that there is, or there was, a theory that memory is a holographic process, and so it is impossible to delete specific memories without deleting other memories and perhaps damaging memory as a whole. Rather like attempting a prefrontal lobotomy in order to control or eliminate a specific behavior; it might work, but the price is far too high. *My* problem with memory is an increasing tendency to look back in the hope of changing things that happened–or, more often, didn’t happen–long ago. Trying to figure out where I went wrong, as if it would make any difference now. (And it’s not like the issues back then are recurring now and I want to get them right this time, either.) The hope is to put such memories on the shelf where I can look at them without bringing them back to a false life, without re-living them to no point. But I agree–I would not give up even my worst memories, for that would be giving up most of myself.

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    • Thank you, Mike. Yes, there was the thought that electronic “pithing” – insertion of an electrified needle into specific areas of the brain would do the trick. Of course, it was far too invasive. I knew a young woman patient in Italy on whom a prefrontal lobotomy had been done in Switzerland. It stopped the violent outbursts, but the overall and irreversible results were not at all pleasant.

      Like you, I look back at the did and the didn’t do aspects, but I have the growing feeling I’m living a plan. This in NO WAY implies a god or any other such puppet master. But it makes me wonder whence the plan arose and by what vehicle.

      Your closing is quite candid, and a feeling I share. Again, thank you.

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  4. Loved reading this post as all the others. Thank you, Marco ! As for the monkey and all our rambling thoughts, in Japan we say “If it comes, it`s OK, but don`t serve it tea.” 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Good topic Marco, for me it’s the dilemma of trying to calm/control my mind and it seems to vary from day to day, some days it’s good and other days my monkey mind is racing from one thought to another. I do a yoga class every week and I find that really helps set my mind up for the day, however I noticed in my last class, thoughts were racing through my head once again . I use writing down a to do list every day as a strategy to help me stay focused, which works well. The thing I find difficult is when feelings are triggered that I know are not helpful to myself or a situation, but takes so much effort to manage them, like you I also focus on what can be learnt from this but also get annoyed that for whatever reason are not resolved.

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    • Thank you, Julie. I tried “elder yoga” but it was too hard on my back. But I can see how it would help you calm your mind. I’ve tried to do lists but somehow let those pass. Maybe I should resume them.

      As for resolution, sometimes I doubt I could imagine what realistic resolution would look like. Maybe the continuous effort to learn is the resolution.

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      • Julie permalink

        Indeed, the continous effort to learn – I really like that thank you

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  6. jkent33 permalink

    Marco, these posts always provide me with a moment to examine those thoughts that always appear too deep to examine on my own. You have that unique ability causing me to expose/explore a subject that has yet to be categorized. Now under examination, I have several times tried to remember my dreams and to keep many undercover because they haven’t proven to be helpful. I developed a way to make my dreams more worthwhile rendering better sleep. I pick a subject related to creating objects; to be read, building things that have possibilities to make my life better. It usually begins with me disassembling an object then reconstructing while solving problems I view as weaknesses. It provides me with a feeling of satisfaction and happiness. I sometimes simply start with issues puzzling me. I have mastered skills that before would not reveal the answers. So to respond to your subject matter of monkeys. Like you, I rarely forget issues leading to holding on to injustices for long periods. Your advice about tapering off the desire to seek revenge is something I’ve learned to develop. It was good to read it in your words as good advice, because of the dangers of harming someone while wasting precious sleep. However, I see it more as delayed revenge until that issue manifests itself in person. My worst monkey is always, always never be late for any commitments I promised to others. Being an overachiever it would be too painful to grovel for reasons why I failed at anything. The danger is this is never getting myself into situations where I may have to compromise. It has caused me to miss out on things for that fear of failure. I’ve experienced 3 different occasions where I nearly drowned; subsequently, my fear of water has made it uncomfortable to be near streams. This has led to many nightmares destroying my sleep. Another one is having to pack for a trip going over and over my checklist to the point of almost missing flights or the commitment altogether. It usually involves a person who was in management especially if I felt they were not capable of performing to my best interest. I have a closet full of individuals hanging around that from time to time emerge to annoy me with their weakness and underachievement. I hope someday to outlive them or at least have them leave my closet. Nite nite now!

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    • Thank you, Jerry. I wish we could wire your dreams to a monitor so we could see how to properly assemble a Maserati engine. As for people, I almost never dream about anyone I know, or have known. My dreams are more conceptual, placing me in situations I must resolve. One of my frequent questions on awakening is, Haven’t I already resolved this? Why do I keep dreaming it? I have learned, at the cost of sore knuckles, that when hostility seems imminent I always strike first and strike hard. I guess there’s a lesson in that. Other recurrent themes are travel and searching through immense and convoluted mansions. Maybe someday, or night, I’ll settle down. Or maybe I should learn to delegate.

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  7. jkent33 permalink

    I just recalled an event occurring around 1965 that shed light on my problem-solving in my sleep. A whisker before handheld calculators was affordable, I decided it would be nice to learn how to use a “slide-rule”. Money was an issue but finally located a cheap white plastic one. It’s multiple scales posed a real problem. I read the instructions over and over, to no avail. In the meantime, my young wife was grilling me for money spent foolishly we needed for food. I was starting college the next year and she needed to finish high school. I had just finished a Govt program on pipe welding lasting for a year. It was offered in economically challenged areas to provide an ample supply of welders for the Alaskan pipeline with free tuition. Most of the students were unable to read or write but needed a job. I got a call from a family friend who was the superintendent of schools in that region. He said if I wanted to attend he would wave the fees. But, he could only offer it if I agreed to teach each student to read and write the first half of the day; then attend both gas and arc welding classes the remainder of the day. It paid me $25.00 weekly and I got a welding certificate for overhead and flat surface pipe welding. We were already getting our monthly commodities for basic food plus her mother was giving financial assistance. I accepted if he could arrange for me to learn “forge welding” from one of the instructors who was a blacksmith (a lost art). So between taking a beating over wasting a year of not attending college, I was looking silly to my young bride. Upon awakening, after reading over and over the instructions for the slide rule the night before my reputation was on the line. Early the next day my abuse over spending the money for the silly slide-rule began. I picked it up and behold I could do complicated division and multiplication with a breeze. Somehow, in my dreams, the directions fell into place. That has led to my sleep aid of taking an engine apart and then reassembling. It somehow trained me to conceptualize any mechanical device and then reassemble. BTW, ask me about making the worlds best chisels from wire rope. I sold a few to guys cutting bolts to remove dozer blade teeth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jerry. Your narrative gives credence to the old advice, Sleep on it. In the early ’60’s I bought a state of the art slide rule but never developed great skill in using it. But it looked great. I also had an interest in welding, for the art form it might provide. But, I was leery of Parkinson’s disease.

      I can’t recall an instance in which a dream enlightened me, but there have been times when things were easier the next day.

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  8. jkent33 permalink

    Welding is romantic giving you license to create onjects making life easier. I passed the exams to become certified but despised electric arc. Toxic fumes plus multiple burns discouraged me but I loved gas welding. Equipment wise a set of tanks and gauges make it possible to produce art objects on any scale for a few dollars. Also, I made metal tool boxes and tubing to make a variety of now popular steampunk and early industrial now decorating homes. I’ve made some lighting fixtures and tables out of exhaust tubing to satisfaction. A small set of tanks and a few tips are something you should try. I know you will discover it to be entertaining! Good luck…

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    • Thanks. I have a brother-in-law who is a retired bank president. He took welding classes for fun and now does some amazing things. Have you ever watched the program Forged in Fire?

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