When Memory Protects

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Memory is as flexible as a yogi’s torso.  It can be stretched or bent until its shape is hardly recognizable.  At times, it can assume postures that are every bit as unlikely as the most advanced asana of the adept yoga practitioner.

To state that memory is an important topic of exploration is surely obvious.  Still, brief nods both to mythology and to science may help to make this truism more concrete and thus more securely kept in mind.  Cognitive psychologists tell us that words that refer to concrete things are more easily learned and recalled than words that refer to the abstract.  Perhaps, then, by making the above truism more concrete by linking it to a particular myth and to a specific scientific idiom, that truism will be easier to remember as context for the present discussion.

Let us turn first to the world of mythology, specifically that of the Norse.  Odin, leader and wisest of all the gods and goddesses, is often depicted with a raven perched on each of his shoulders.  Their names are Hugin and Munin, Old Norse words that are translated as “thought” and “memory” or “remembrance,” respectively.  We are told in “The Lay of Grimnir,” an early chapter of The Poetic Edda, that Odin sends forth his ravens each morning to survey the world.  We learn, therefore, that Odin is each day informed by thought and memory.  In his own words, “The whole earth over, every day, hover Hugin and Munin; I dread lest Hugin droop in his flight, yet I fear me still more for Munin” (The Poetic Edda, University of Texas, 1962, p. 57, Translated by L. M. Hollander).  If one were inclined to glean mytho-poetic wisdom from this, one would be well advised to consult both thought and memory before acting.  Otherwise stated, action is most sage when guided by interplay of a rational thought process and empirically based memories.  Even beyond this counsel, however, Odin suggested that memory exceeds thought in importance.  Without the content of memory, the process of thought, like a millstone without grist, is left to turn but without producing.


With their increasingly sophisticated scans, neuropsychologists have relentlessly hunted memory to its burrows within the complex pathways of the brain.  Meanwhile, their fellow researchers, the cognitive psychologists, have defined and categorized memory into a multifarious typology.  With cleverly designed experiments, they have revealed many of its parameters and dynamics.  In order to begin to appreciate the scope of this, please bear with the following partial yet perhaps still tedious list.  In their naming and classifying, the psychologists have suggested short-term memory or working memory, with sensory memory and iconic memory (visual sensory memory) as subtypes, long-term memory with major subtypes such as episodic memory (with its subtype autobiographical memory), procedural memory, and semantic memory.  Lest the complexity of classifying types of memory is not readily apparent, the list can be enhanced with the further terms metamemory, declarative or explicit memory, and nondeclarative (sic) or implicit memory, mood-congruent memory, and mood-dependent memory.  Still sounding the depths of this pool, the less prosaic terms tunnel memory and flashbulb memory have been introduced.  Clinical psychologists have added implanted memory and false memory to this already swollen list.  With both practical and less obvious benefit, another level of discourse is added by the distinction of memory acquisition or encoding (learning), memory retention, and memory retrieval.  The latter begs inclusion of amnesia with its subtypes anterograde, retrograde, and transient global amnesia.  Each of these many terms is fraught with meaning, each one reflecting the recognition of yet another facet of memory.  Definition of these numerous and nuanced technical terms, fortunately, is neither necessary nor desirable, herein.  Let us merely accept that memory constitutes a highly complex field of scientific study.

Unburdened by such technical detail, and with poetic touch and characteristic insight, Nietzsche addressed memory from the perspective of one of its especially interesting global dynamics.  Dedicating one of his aphorisms to this, he proffered the following in his “Apophthegms and Interludes” (Beyond Good and Evil, Carlton House, no year, p. 73).  His exact words are worthy of attention: “‘I did that,’ says my memory.  ‘I could not have done that,’ says my pride, and remains inexorable.  Eventually —— the memory yields.”  Herein, Nietzsche has alerted us to the flexibility of memory.  He has reminded us that memory can be stretched and bent under the pressure of pride.


It is noteworthy that in his writing Fritz Perls, the doyen of gestalt therapy, echoed Nietzsche.  Early in his rather irreverent autobiography, In and Out the Garbage Pail (sic), Perls paraphrased Nietzsche as follows (Bantam, 1972, p. 2): “Memory and Pride were fighting.  Memory said ‘It was like that,’ and Pride said: ‘It couldn’t have been!’  And Memory gave in.”

Notice that in Perls’ paraphrased version Memory and Pride were “fighting.”  One of Perls’ early books was titled Ego, Hunger, and Aggression, and aggression is a leitmotiv in his writing.  For Perls, aggression is not tied to or equated with anger, but refers more to what may be called assertion.  It is through assertive action, “aggression” for Perls, that a person is able to get one’s needs met.  Hence the affinity of ego, hunger, and aggression that is reflected in his book title.  In simplified form, the idea is as follows.  Life proceeds through need cycles.  As a need arises and becomes pre-potent, the entire person mobilizes, physically and psychologically in order to satisfy that need.  By means of aggression (assertive action), the hunger may be quelled, and the ego satisfied.  That now satisfied need recedes into background until for physiological or psychological reasons it again arises.  Of course, whenever the assertive action is thwarted or multiple needs arise simultaneously, the situation becomes more complicated.

The idea of the need cycle may have explanatory value when applied to the notion of the stretching and bending of memory.  In order to do this, the relevant need must first be recognized and put in context.

Anyone who has taken a college level course in introductory psychology is most likely aware of the hierarchy of needs introduced by Abraham Maslow.  In his model, each need listed must be satisfied before the next higher need on the list becomes salient.  The lower needs, known as deficiency needs are based on lack and necessary fulfillment.  One is driven to meet these needs and the corresponding drives are termed deficiency motivations.  These needs, in hierarchical order are physiological needs (air, nutrition, a certain temperature range, sex, sleep, water), and the psychological needs for safety and security, belonging and love, and esteem.  Continuing up the hierarchy beyond these four deficiency needs, Maslow postulated what he variously termed “being” needs, growth needs, or metaneeds (sic) and corresponding “being motivations,” growth motivations, or metamotivations (sic).  Although he later revised his thinking, seeing these three as interchangeable, in his earlier model the hierarchical “being needs” were constituted of the need for self-actualization (fulfillment of one’s potential), cognitive needs (knowing, understanding), and aesthetic needs (desire for beauty).  Although there are extreme circumstances under which the order may be disrupted, in general the seven needs are in hierarchical order with each need vulnerable to being trumped by an unfulfilled pre-potent need beneath it.

Note the position of esteem in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  It is a lower need, a deficiency need, and can therefore be trumped by the physiological needs, the need for safety and security, or the need to belong and feel loved.  This means that esteem may be sacrificed in the face of deficiency in these lower needs.  Esteem is irrelevant, for the most part, when a feeling of belonging, or feeling safe, or let alone having food to keep from starving is the issue.  But in moments when those needs that are below it are met, the need for esteem may become salient and cry for fulfillment.  Maslow recognized two types of esteem needs, desire for competence and achievement, and respect from others (appreciation, fame, recognition, status).  What then of memories that place one’s self in a less than favorable light?  What of memories that show one to be incompetent?  Or memories of not being appreciated, not recognized?  It seems likely that if the ego is wounded by such memories, if the person feels acutely deficient in esteem, that the offending memory would be vulnerable to distortion.  It is then that pride would pressure memory to stretch and bend.  Or as Perls notably suggested in his paraphrasing of Nietzsche’s apophthegm, memory and pride would fight.  The ego’s hunger for esteem could lead to aggression against the threatening memory.  In the end, memory could yield, stretched or bent under the aggression of wounded pride.



by Edward W. L. Smith  |             Featuring artwork by Jennifer Lauren        |         Featured image by Økuntakinte


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Edward W Smith