The question–a troubling one I’m still contending with–came out of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. In the novel, Calvino imagines a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Kahn, a back and forth in which Polo describes cities that Kahn believes span his empire. Eventually, Kahn realizes that Polo’s “cities” are fictitious, though each description captures a piece of Venice, Polo’s home. Kahn is miffed. He had believed that through this dialogue he could understand his sprawling kingdom, “If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have finally learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire.” Kahn believes that Polo’s accounts, his descriptions of the cities, can afford him some type of possession.
But Polo believes the opposite, “Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased.” This fear of attaching words to memory is why Polo admits, “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it.”
Polo’s fear led to the troubling question. What is lost when you write your memories into sentences and paragraphs?
Let’s start with some science. We may posses our memories less than we think, or so I learned this summer after a friend sent me a groundbreaking study on the nature of memory. That study, explored here in WIRED, challenges our conceptions of how our brains hold memories. In fact, as the article’s title announces, “Your brain doesn’t contain memories, it is memories.”
In lieu of parsing the neuroscience, consider this finding from Nikolay Vadimovich Kukushkin, one of the study’s authors.
When you dig into molecules, and the states of ion channels, enzymes, transcription programs, cells, synapses, and whole networks of neurons, you come to realize that there is no one place in the brain where memories are stored.
Essentially, our language for describing how we “hold” memories—how we think of our brains containing a memory bank, an archive of our compiled history—doesn’t reflect our actual construction. When you access a favorite memory, there’s no brain librarian scurrying through stacks of your experiences to pinpoint a specific volume.
The way our memories form, even our most poignant, can sound a bit mechanical when examined closely.
Human memories begin at a very granular scale. Your mother’s face began as a barrage of photons on your retina, which sent a signal to your visual cortex. You hear her voice, and your auditory cortex transforms the sound waves into electrical signals. Hormones layer the experience with context—this person makes you feel good. These and a virtually infinite number of other inputs cascade across your brain.
So, what we consider a “memory” is really a constellation of neurological changes scattered across the cortices of our brains.
But does this matter? Don’t we still experience memories as a series of moving images? Does it matter that when we have a memory we are really just reconstructing stimuli based on the infinitesimal changes our experiences leave on the hardware in our brains?
Setting neuroscience aside, this idea—that our experiences of memory are really just translations from disparate sources—strikes me as similar to what happens when I put memory into writing. In this type of writing, I do what Calvino’s Polo fears. In this type of writing, I risk losing my Venice.
What is lost in translation when I try to describe an afternoon paddling a canoe, how a crusty life jacket slid along my brother’s shoulders, slick with seawater, sweat, and sunscreen? What do I lose when I describe how our mother waited for us, sitting on the end of the dock, a novel shading her face, while we splashed around in those tidal waters? Two decades separate me from those afternoons, and this time conspires to blur the memory’s edges, but does the act of writing replace the source material? In the memory’s place, do I now only have a block of text?
Regardless of what might be lost, I don’t know if I can agree with Calvino’s Polo. In fact, the more I think about it, I fear what would happen if I didn’t try to fix my memories into words. If we truly don’t possess our memories, than I’d rather risk falling short with language than losing childhood afternoons to the fickle plasticity of my brain.
Source image: Getty
Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café MFA and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.