The Folly of Nostalgia and Remembrance
What is reality? Philosophers have been mentally masturbating over this concept from arguably the birth of language. As we became more self-aware probably around 50,000 years ago, as testament to cave paintings as a means of expression of thought and emotion, one of the fundamental questions arose: is that salacious feeling lust or love? I am confident that our Cro-Magnon brethren didn't exactly theorize it that way and more than likely dismissed it as irrelevant. Nonetheless, we can ask ourselves now; is the perception of love, true love, worse when it is perceived as genuine but ultimately not real? Or did that event happen as my churning cortex is allowing me to logically understand? Perhaps the reality is a element of the perception which is in turn the belief? Regardless, the intricacies of detail found in memories we are privy to now are part and parcel to the universal human emotional expression. Remembrance is the mosaic formed by placing the tiles of memories into a pattern. The pattern is unique and random and highly personal. But what if those memories are perceived ironically or falsely; how does that change the entire mosaic? Lies and delusions are the same as memories if we perceive them as genuine. Whatever the psychological nomenclature is either false memory, implanted memory or secondary memory they all share the same essence in quality. Going further on leap of logic these memories could be fueled by benign hallucinations which are out of our control yet mimic our perception. Vast oceans of remembrance keeping your “soul” alive by a linkage of memories dotting the seascape like an expansive archipelago.
The future as we had envisioned it years ago; does it live up to our expectations? Have we merely adapted to it through mild hallucinatory episodes making the disappointment more palatable? Like a jaunt down memory lane with all the jagged cobblestones of perception along the way. Imagine, if you will, the political climate as the Republicans see it. Ronald Reagan is exalted as the messiah and an embodiment of all that is righteous and holy within the neo-conservative movement. Is he really? Conversely, take JFK. He is viewed by liberals and progressives as the template of Pragmatism. Pragmatism is a chiefly American philosophy which in a nutshell decrees that one should weigh the pros and cons and in the end choose what works. Is that a real and bona fide assessment of JFK? The negation of of hurts and disappointments after a romance breaks up. Are you coping in the short term only to emerge with a more balanced and less rapacious overview of the relationship or have you subjected yourself to false memories? The past is never as great as the delusion would have us believe. It was never a carnival of utopian delights. But what if we imagined it to be so by crisscrossing the way we perceive emotions. The crisscrossing and intermingling of perception is known to neuroscience as synesthesia.
Synesthesia has distinctive and predictable hyper-connectivity which once formed early in life is unlikely to change as the individual ages. Perhaps the most common cross wiring is color synesthesia which shades, colors or tints numbers and letters. Despite the personalization of the experience data dictates that the letter A is usually red among synesthetes. This trend holds true for the other types of synesthesia as well. Another form of number synesthesia is spatial sequencing in which numbers appear in the minds eye to occupy disparate slots in an imagined area. The number 7 could hoover close to the face around the eyes while the number 3 might be teetering on the edge of the horizon. Sound synesthesia orchestrates a visual orgy of colored fireworks which burst in front of the synesthete as notes, melodies and harmonies are played. Words can also spark sensation on the tongue of rudimentary tastes in what is called lexical synesthesia. The taste sensation is brought forth out of phonemes. A diphthong might create honey sweetness or a hard X might taste harsh and bitter. Who knows maybe even the passionately languid /I/ /L/ /O/ /V E/ /Y/ /OU/ might start with a wash of cane sugar and finish with an unbearable tartness.
If you come to the conclusion, after reading just a smidgen about synesthesia, that you are far removed from its cross wired confusion; think again. Statistically the prevalence in the US alone is mind boggling. One in twenty three people have some degree of at least one sort of clinical synesthesia. This statistic alone should make us recoil and reassess. Naturally we are painfully and gleefully vigilant of the axiom “lies, damn lies and statistics” popularized by Mark Twain in his autobiography published in 1906. Interesting side note is that Twain was not the first to use the phrase in print. When speaking about “three different truths” that honor goes to Eliza Gutch. In 1891 Gutch wrote an open letter to The National Observer in London which was published under her pseudonym St Swithin. Let me swerve back on topic. Hopefully this intermezzo has given you enough time to absorb the gravity of the apparent yet unclear intrinsic evolutionary advantage synesthesia provides. Extracting synesthesia from physiological and clinical constrains and shining a light on its linguistic omnipotence it becomes, I posit, even more an integral part of all of us. Here's an experiment to test on yourself. Without pondering and overanalyzing try envisioning a Hawaiian/aloha shirt with dancing hula girls, tiki statues and pineapple motifs in red, green, blue and yellow. Ok, keep thinking of that Aloha shirt and all its motion of color and motifs. If you are like me the shirt you are thinking of it shouting like a Banshee at you retinas. You might describe it to someone as a “loud shirt'. A simple metaphor to sketch a picture for someone in order to elicit the same emotional experience when you see that horrendous Aloha Shirt. I, by the way, adore Hawaiian shirts and this fictitious shirt I would buy in a New York minute. If we distill a metaphor down to its basal functionality then we can understand it as giving meaning to a concept by juxtaposing the similar with the dissimilar. Good news for poets and greeting card manufacturers is that the list of combinations is virtually endless; warm color, sharp cheese or she's so sweet are a few which spring to mind. To illustrate the hyper-connectivity more concisely it can be assumed that synesthesia is working surreptitiously when we experience taste. At its core the sensation of taste is extremely limited having a range of only 5 flavors: sweet, bitter, sour, salty or umami (Japanese for meaty/savory). Our ability to nuance smells and complex aromas permits our rudimentary tastebuds to be hoaxed into a broader spectrum of taste. So we all employ some form of cross wiring which I feel is linked closely to synesthesia.
The experience of phantom limbs could logically, if not physiologically, tickle the neurotransmitters which evoke emotions. Phantom limbs are defined as a sensation of an amputated limb still having the properties it had while it was attached to the body. It move and gyrates and can even be an nuisance like a physical limb can sometimes be. I recall Oliver Sacks, the renowned neurologist, describing a patient of his who had recently become an amputee losing his arm from the elbow down. He complained to the nurses, doctors and hospital staff that he found it vexing that he kept poking his eye with his missing finger from the amputated arm. Emotions might have a similar mechanism in our limbic system; the system located in our brain which controls and regulates emotions. The nearly catatonic respites one takes when grieving about the loss of a loved one; either by death or separation; could trigger a secondary almost hallucinogenic memory. I opine that the complete array of senses can be utilized to conjure these phantasmagorical memories. The nostalgic scent of a person; the aroma of their unique chemical secretions; build a memory tower tantamount to the Tower of Babel. The idiosyncratic nature of olfactory perception pushes the heights of this nostalgia to the precipice of spiritual awakening. Everyone has had uttered at sometime or another the synesthetic phrases; “It's so real I can almost taste (touch, smell, see, hear) it”. Memory becomes not only subjective but extremely specific when the remembrance of emotions is summoned to tranquilize a loss, disappointment or painful experience.
What about nostalgia of the future. Why do we aggressively want to believe that progress equals bliss? I can't ever remembering I wanted a jetpack or flying car or domed city with connective tubes wending around the metropolis. Never thought I'd buy a home in the Apex Suburbs of equatorial Mars. Futurists and scientists who only extrapolate from what they know currently would have us buy into their beguiling vision of existence along side nano quantum computers all the way to designer babies and singularity. Millenarian movements are another category of like minded people which declare the world will end soon. Expecting it to transform into something revolutionary the millenarians have twisted a theme which has coalesced neatly into the singularity movement. Death takes on a hyperbolic reality to us fleshy humans as we are systematically ushered through a series of evolutionary changes. First cyborgs then hybrids finally reaching a state of genome tweaked super beings. Or some other variation or sequence. Why not reverse that thought and throw it back on itself. The futuristic predictions are merely filling the gaps and voids of nostalgic expectations. These predictions for the future are derived from the prevailing zeitgeist, but usually reveal aspects of what we had hoped our future would look like.
Remembrance and nostalgia are among our finest gadgets in the toolbox of our brain. The terms real, unreal or surreal are each bankrupt as classifications for the vast and rich experiences we use to make life a little more worth living.