Time Travel for Ghosts

Situation awareness and mental models are much weirder phenomena than people realize. In Tempo, I mostly talk about their non-weird, intuitively obvious aspects. The weirdness comes in when you start to become conscious of, and understand, the logic behind some of the seemingly odd things the brain does. A commonly cited illustration is Proust’s madeline. It makes no kind of logical sense that a specific kind of cookie should be the starting point for a process of gradually uncovering a lifetime of memories. But it makes a great deal of narrative sense. This is one reason fragmented memory landscapes are a popular plot device with film-makers. Movies like The Machinist and Vanilla Sky come to mind (I’d like to compile a list of such movies and rewatch them. Any other suggestions? I vaguely recall a movie with a fragmented-memory type plot that had the motif of scissors running through the story).

One of the best ways to understand how situation awareness and mental models work is to return to a place of significance in your life after a very long period of absence. You will experience the surreal logic of your mind. The best description I can come up with for the experience is “time-traveling ghost.”

I am spending the day in Ann Arbor, MI where I spent nearly six years of my life. I haven’t visited since 2003. Situation awareness is slowly coming back. Old mental models are loading themselves, with arthritic grunts, into conscious awareness. But the memories are coming back in very unsettling scissors-and-madeline ways. What Proust called involuntary memory. Ann Arbor is a city that has played a very significant role in my life. Perhaps more significant even than Jamshedpur, the Indian city I grew up in. Ann Arbor was my coming-of-age town in more ways than one. I changed cultures and met my future wife here. I also discovered — and fought both internal demons and external forces to own — my sense of personal and social identity here. This is where I read the books that have most significantly shaped my thinking and developed the skills I most prize. Here, I went through episodes of deep depression, crazed manic excitement, and periods of tranquil fulfillment.  The town is littered with places that have some sort of narrative significance in my life. The place where I first stepped out of the taxi in front of the student union building, the coffee shop where I solved one of my PhD problems. The restaurant where my now-wife and I went on our first date.

It would make sense if, wandering around town today, these were the places that registered. But while they do register weakly, it is a very different set of things that evoke very strong memories.  In half the cases, I cannot remember why I remember something or somebody. As I drove into town, random roads and exits evoked sharp memories, yet others that should have evoked strong reactions did not. I remembered the face and name of an admin assistant at my department who I hadn’t thought about in years (and didn’t interact with much when I was here). But I had mostly forgotten the route of the bus that I’d taken every day for several years. Some of these effects are obviously an effect of patterns of reinforcement (things I saw everyday that didn’t mean much then or now) or biology (smells and tastes anchor memories much more strongly than sights or sounds, so the olfactory landscape is remembered better). But other effects are just as obviously a function of repressed or denied emotions, unresolved and denied conflicts, and so forth.

Emotions behave weirdly as well. Every significant place in our life is a landscape of unresolved conflicts, markers of compromises and battles abandoned. When we complete a significant phase in our life — what I call a deep story in the book — we tend to tie things up neatly into a compact remembered narrative and extracted lessons that are only weakly related to the experienced deep story. One effect of this is that the emotional content of the story is mostly canceled out in the memory, except for the emotions we deliberately choose to remember. My time in Ann Arbor was a true deep story, bookended by the liminal passages of coming to a new country and finishing a PhD. And going by my reactions today, I definitely made some arbitrary choices about what to remember.

When we put ourselves back in the archived situation, the suppressed, ignored or dismissed memories come flooding back, triggering the same emotions and energy patterns with which they were originally associated. Emotions that did not get a fair billing in the remembered version of history get their moment of revenge. It is like cutting a pattern out of paper, and having the discarded bits and pieces rained on you later.

As you walk through a landscape that is pregnant with memories, you are like a ghost. To others, you may seem like just another person walking about. In my case, I have a youngish look, and since I am lugging a backpack around today, I suspect the people around me think I am a current student (okay, okay, “older graduate student”). They are mostly experiencing the sort of regular day I used to experience 8-9 years ago (I finished up in 2003).  But I think I am experiencing an echo of 1997-2003 super-imposed on today’s physical landscape. If people watching knew what I am experiencing right now, they’d probably think of me as a time-traveling ghost.

This sense of being a ghost wandering about a landscape hidden from view to others is strange. Your mind is dominated by weak old memories and conflicts. The emotions and energy are not coherent. The reaction evoked by one street corner may have its roots in one episode, while the reactions to the next street corner may derive from an entirely different episode. It is a roller coaster ride.

The reactions are not as rich or powerful as present experience (otherwise we’d go nuts), but the old memories are strong enough that they leave almost no cognitive room for the present to intrude.  There is a surreal out-of-body experience feeling associated with routine transactions like paying for coffee. It is like watching somebody else interact. You might be talking to the barista two feet away, but it feels like you are speaking through a mile-long tunnel the other person is unaware of.

And then there are the people who remember the ghost. My PhD advisor Pierre, had a deer-in-the-headlights look for a couple of micro-seconds when I walked into his office, before he came forward to greet me. The other professor and student he was talking to looked nonplussed. Pierre was joining me in ghost-land in a sense, leaving the living behind. To them, it must have seemed as if Pierre had metaphorically disappeared.

A metaphor I like to understand these things is to think of the old mental models as a landscape where the heights of the hills and mountains are functions of old emotions and mysterious patterns of logic. The brain is wired to record memories in very illegible ways. As time passes, the landscape floods with water and gets covered. The archipelago of islands bears no meaningful relationship to the landscape you once inhabited. When you return, the water starts to drain away, uncovering the landscape in a weird process that starts with surreal incoherence and gradually returns to normal. It takes a while though. I think I’d need to stay in Ann Arbor for a week for things to get back to a new “normal” that is a coherent extension of my 2003 “normal.”

But for whatever reason, I have a deep sense of trust in how my brain handles its memories. Its methods may keep therapists in business, but its decision to make things like madelines or other such non sequiturs the entry point for bootstrapping archived memories back into awareness seems oddly efficient. That strangeness of these methods is probably related to the strangeness of the logic with which I recently stuffed all my belongings into 10×10 storage unit. The couch is stored vertically, with an ottoman on top. My bicycle is at a crazy angle. The packed state is partly a result of the logic of packing, not the logic of lived experience.  The analogy to brains isn’t exact. We do not archive our past the way we put our things into storage. But whatever the illegible logic at work, I suspect it is very efficient, even making allowance for potential evolutionary irrationalities. I suspect the brain handles stories the way stories should be handled, and any attempt to make the organization as legible as the organization of memory and disk-space in computing would cripple us.



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  1. Movies on memory:

    ‘Memento’ for an illustration of mental models without long-term memory.
    ‘Lost Highway’ for an risky, and mostly failed, experiment on the relationship between reality and memory. At one point a character says he doesn’t use camera’s because “I like to remember things as I remember them, not necessarily as they happened.”

  2. I think Groundhog Day might also count. It looks like a time travel movie, but the key change every day is that the main character keeps his accumulated memories of previous Groundhog days (cf. Donnie Darko, where one theory is he lives the same month over and over, but is unaware of it). If he didn’t keep his memories, he really would be doing the exact same things every time. Total Recall would be another one.

  3. Dark City?
    Run Lola Run?
    Fight Club?

    if groundhog counts, then does that Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore vehicle…. “50 dates” or something also count? Just a thought?

  4. Dead Again and a few Hitchcock films had scissors as a recurrent motif. See http://www.netcomuk.co.uk/~media/DeaAga.html

  5. I’d second Stefan King’s recommendation for ‘Memento’.

    Not only is the protagonist trying to function without the ability to form new memories, but the scenes in the movie unfold in reverse chronological order, which has a very disorienting (but artistically satisfying) effect on the _viewer’s_ perceptions and memories as well!

  6. Jennifer Schreiner says

    Though it may not be your belief or understanding, if reincarnation is the way of things, there could be even more layers of “memory”, perhaps beyond even the subconscious level, maybe in a “supraconscious” (mind beyond the brain, heart beyond the mind?) level, affecting our relationships with each other and the world. (I don’t have a Phd and haven’t studied Freud in years, so please forgive my ignorance in regards to terminology.)

    Sometimes it seems we want to be near someone we hardly know, but sense we do know, or we have a sense of having been somewhere before, or we have an immediate dislike of someone, or somewhere, without really knowing why. It has been called affinity by some.

    But whatever it is, memory from present life or affinity from ???, when we become like ghosts, arriving back at the present moment may have something to do with letting go, and something to do with learning how to smooth out the affinity we have with one another and the world; to diminish, , both directly and indirectly, the attachment of easy affinity and the deflection from and barriers we raise toward harsh affinity.