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Oh drat, I forgot…YSP 1.11

 1.11 anubhuta vishaya asampramoshah smritih

  Recollection or memory (smriti) is mental modification caused by the inner reproducing of a previous impression of an object, but without adding any other characteristics from other sources. — translation 

Well, this is just plain embarrassing. Somewhere in the kerfuffle of that which was last week, I forgot to write the ‘blog column on, wait for it, memory. That’s what happens when you don’t get enough nidra.
Actually, I think I wrote it but forgot to post it. Or I thought about writing it but forgot the actual writing part. Or maybe I imagined I wrote it and then forgot about that. Either way, it’s Sunday and I’m blogless and the weekly deadline is a-ticking because tomorrow, we’re on to brand new stuff.
Memory is a tricky thing. As I age, I find I have to write things down a lot or I forget them. I forget details. The particulars of event A get mushed up with the details of Event B. I thought that book at the used book shop looked interesting when I saw it on the shelf. After I’d bought it and brought it home, I was a little perturbed to realize that not only had I read the book previously, the copy now in my hand was the one I had sold to the used book store several months back. I don’t think that’s what they meant by ‘recycling’.
The joke is that it’s a “senior moment”. Before I was perimenopausal, I used the excuse of “pregnancy brain”. In spite of having only one child, I think I milked about 36 months of use out of “pregnancy brain”, and no, I didn’t have the gestational record of an elephant.
Let’s face it — memory is just plain confusing. Emotional states certainly impact it. If I’m upset about things and concentring on my anxieties, I tend to be forgetful about other things. Usually, when I think of memory, I think that it’s about the past. We also have future memory which totally threw me until I remembered that I have to remember to not forget to write this column again this week coming. Not only do I need to keep the past straight, I also need to remember in the future…it’s little wonder a few of the details fall through the cracks.

Lots of us live under the delusion that our memories are faithful recorders of the perceptible world around us. We record what we saw, or heard or in some sense witnessed and at a later point in time, we can recall those details at will. Sure, memories fade with time, but for the really big events, we remember them like they happened yesterday, in all their Technicolor glory.


Let me disabuse you of that notion right now. Our minds are not video recorders. Memories are things that we construct and there are scads of places where memory can get gibbled up. Our emotional state affects the veracity of our memories. We often remember what we expect to remember. Classic case of this phenomenon is people recounting their witness testimony of a motor vehicle accident. Witnesses will swear up hill and down dale that there was a stop sign at the intersection and the red Cavalier went through it without stopping (thus causing the accident). Photographs of the scene, when examined later, will show that some dastardly nimrod removed said stop sign in the middle of the night. All these people who ‘remember’ the stop sign in their visual recollection aren’t lying. There’s no malice at work. Literally, their brain said “Oh, should be a stop sign in that picture, I’ll just add one.” And, voila, they remember the stop sign that wasn’t there.

It reminds me of an example I read about once, an experiment that was done with kindergarten and Grade 1 age students and it highlights the issue. In this experiment, an actor dressed in a business suit, walked into a classroom and just stood there. He was videotaped and it’s confirmed that he had no social interaction with any of the children. He didn’t speak with them nor did he make any gestures towards them. After a brief period, five or ten minutes, he exited the classroom.

A week later, the teacher who is an accomplice in this experiment, asks the children about the visit of Mr Smith the week before. She asks them if they remember Mr Smith tearing the phone book in half. Some of the children do “remember” this while others don’t. It’s important to note that the original actor, Mr Smith, did nothing of the sort.

Several weeks later, when the children are again questioned about Mr Smith’s visit, more of them remember him tearing the phone book in half. They also remember him flying around the room, throwing someone out the window and turning into a dog.

I have always believed that the “satanic child abuse” hysteria in the 1980s was manufactured by the interviewing techniques. A number of child-care workers were investigated (and more than a few convicted) of horrific crimes against children, up to and including ritual homicide. The prosecution of these offences hinged on the memories of young children, deemed to be too young to have cooked up these stories and that made the adults ‘guilty’ of some monstrous (and frankly fantastic) acts. It’s important to note that these children were NOT lying. This is just a vivid (and horrific) lesson in how powerful and illusive memory can be. We can remember imagined events just as powerfully as we remember ‘real’ events.

Today, largely out of these experiences, guidelines for police interviews of young children have been changed to reflect our knowledge of how memories can be manufactured. There are very strict guidelines under which a child can be interviewed, including length of interview, time, availability of a parent, etc. In the original cases, the witness children had frequently been questioned for hours at a time and like a lot of ‘good kids’, they had a need to please authority. That need, coupled with fatigue, sometimes hunger, and separation from their parents, often resulted in some wild stories that the children thought pleased the interviewer.

In my career as a 9-1-1 operator, I unfortunately received several calls from a distraught parent who had just discovered that her child had been sexually abused, inevitably by someone she trusted. The protocol was to comfort as much as possible while the regular police patrol attended. I used to stress the importance of not talking to the child about the details of the occurrence because unless someone is trained on how to ask these kinds of questions of young children, it’s easy to plant the seeds of false memories. In most cases, the patrol officer would take a statement from the parent(s) but the interview of the child would be the responsibility of someone specially trained in that detail.

The point here is that memory is one of the important functions of our mind. It’s a powerful way of knowing that we frequently overlook for its very familiarity. Like all the other sources of knowledge that Patanjali listed, it has to be used wisely and with a certain level of discernment. The more we appreciated both the wonder of our memory and its potential shortcomings, the more faithful a servant it can be. It’s when we don’t appreciate where memory can be tainted that it can be problematic.

Thanks for reading and Namaste,



 A general note: This blog is about trying to integrate the philosophical teachings of Yoga into my daily life. I’m not an expert on Sanskrit, Yoga or Life in general. My teacher Kathryn Downton provides an important part of my education in these matters but I read voraciously on these topics. I’ll credit her for the parts that I get right and I’ll own the parts I mess up. I try to acknowledge my sources where I can but frankly, I haven’t kept good notes over the years on where I got this stuff. These discussions are meant to be about one person’s perspective and not an intellectual treatise on the nature of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Please keep in mind that this is exploration and not explanation.




About Kate MacKay

I'm a certified Viniyoga teacher, in Fredericton, NB. I was a 9-1-1 operator and emergency services dispatcher for 22 years. Surprisingly, the two worked well together, or as I liked to put it, from the sublime to the ridiculous -- all in a day's work. I'm currently off work as a result of a stress-induced cardiac condition that's thrown a few crimps in my lifestyle. I'm not actively teaching yoga in the classroom right now and probably won't for several more months. That said, this blog is one of the forms of practice I can do and I thank you for joining me in this exploration of all things yoga.

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