Memories (Oh my god, merely typing that word has me singing)

As you know, I’m in the middle of a giant mull on the rewrite for Sue. And here’s a slight problem I have, just intellectually, with the problem of time travel. Say I’m John, born in 1990, destined to go back to 1887. Could I, say in 2000, remember things that I did in 1887 even though I have not gone back to 1887 yet?

I guess, to get at the question another way, it would help to better understand what exactly memories are. Are they literally things? Like is there a cell that holds the smell of my grandmother in it and my brain somehow plays that cell when I want to access it? That seems unlikely as your brain doesn’t get bigger every day as you add more memories. Is a memory a neural pathway that you just send electric impulses down over and over queuing up and playing out those same experiences?

I’m not a scientist, but again, that explanation doesn’t quite satisfy me.

But no matter what a memory is, the fact of the matter seems to be that it is a recollection of something that happened in the past. And 1887 is, objectively, John’s past. If he did things back there, shouldn’t he have those memories?

Or would we argue that he wouldn’t have those memories because he does not yet have that brain? Think of it this way. Say that you are slowly circling the block in your car with the windows down and your friend is standing on the corner with a bunch of Kleenex boxes. Now, say that she is going to get in the car with you, but not until she’s tossed ten Kleenex boxes into the car. So, even though you have a car and there’s your friend at the corner, the circumstances by which she’d enter your car are not yet met. No matter how many times you drive around the block, she’s not going to be in your car until your car is ready.

Is your friend like a memory in that sense? Is it possible that John has no memory of what he did in 1887 because he’s simply not old enough, his brain is not filled with the right things that would allow him to remember?

I guess that makes sense to me at one level, but life is messy, you know? You might think, for instance, that you are, right now, reading this, perfectly neat and put together and yet, if you stood before a mirror, you would find a hair out of place, a speck of dirt on you. Nature doesn’t draw straight lines. It makes no hard and fast rules.

I think there’d be some bleed-through. They might not be memories exactly, since he would experience them as weird visions of things he had no experience with, but they’d be there–the things he did in the past sometimes firing off in a brain that does not yet know what he will do/has done.

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5 thoughts on “Memories (Oh my god, merely typing that word has me singing)

  1. Well, for whatever it’s worth, it seems reasonably clear to me that memories are fashioned brain records, however accurate or otherwise, of a person’s experience in the course of their (mainly conscious) life..birth to death, so that if you haven’t visited 1887 yet at age 42, then you haven’t, calendar be damned. OTHER people can remember you; you might find surprising evidence, but there seems every reason for such news to be a surprise. Once you’ve been to 1887, it goes on your memory’s imperfect, more or less permanent record–the events while you were there and what you learned there. (And we do know, of course, that memories accumulate in the brian through increasing numbers and combinations of neural connections, not more head size!) Anyhow, there is also the fun fact that in fiction, you can do what you dang please, if you can make us buy it.

  2. You need to read F.M. Busby’s story “If This Is Winnetka, You Must Be Judy,” which deals with this problem from a different angle (and without the same sort of time travel you’re supposing).

  3. My take on this, as a SF fan who likes time travel stories AND a neuroscience graduate: he would not remember things he had not yet experienced, no matter what point in history (or future) those thing occurred. I think of it in terms of personal timeline. John has not had the experience of going back in time to 1887 yet, therefore he does not remember it. If you flip the timetravel in question and have him going to the (relative) future, would you expect him to forget his experiences in the year 3412 as soon as he travels back to his home-time of the year 2000?

    From a neuroscience perspective we are still figuring out exactly what memory is and how it’s stored, but it seems to be somewhat holistic. It’s not an individual cell, it’s a pattern of cell activations that is somehow stored. More like a computer program than a letter or object in a keepsake box. That’s why a smell can evoke strong memories of the sights and sounds of a place and time in your personal history. That’s also why a brain injury can lead to unexpectedly arranged holes in memories.

    John Wyndham’s series of short stories “seeds of time” is a fun set of tales exploring diffewrent aspects of time travel, though I think it’s out of print in the US I know I have been able to find second hand copies cheaply. Same Wyndham that wrote Day of The Triffids (the book is miles and miles better and more subtle than the movie).

  4. Okay, I’m sorry, but the idea that my memories fire up my brain like some kind of pinball machine or personal fireworks is just awesome. I’m going to be thinking about that all day.

    And I am tickled that, of course, a neuroscientist would just happen to come by and explain things in a way that blew my mind. When people tell me they don’t understand the joy of blogging, I have to assume it’s because they don’t understand how awesome it is when the very people you hope to hear from stop by.

    And, lastly, good point about whether I’d expect him to lose memories of the future upon traveling to the past. That shows the folly of my train of thought very well.

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