“The Autobiographical Memory”
Yesterday I read something that was totally new to me and set my mind on fire. Here is the gist of it:
It took two million years of human development, beginning with homo habilis and culminating in homo sapiens, for us to develop what Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a psychiatrist and medical researcher calls “the autobiographical memory.”
Our autobiographical memory allows us to be all over our lives. It is the ability to project ourselves backwards and forwards in time. We have been able to do this for 40,000 years, and though these time excursions have been a cherished pastime of my life, I did not know how long it took our species to get there.
If we are made up of all the experiences we have had, then our autobiographical memory makes it possible to be right here, right now, and at the same time inhabit our there’s and our then’s. Not only can I sit here writing this blog but I can be twenty-five and loping in my high heels from Grosvenor Square to Piccadilly on my lunch hour, feeling old and wondering if I will ever accomplish anything.
The autobiographical memory also enables the voices of the dead to respond to our living questions. As I wrote in my last blog, Whenever I wonder what if I am one of those souls who don’t love themselves, the voice of Sister Winters, now dead for sixteen years, replies, “Oh, God loves you all the same. It’s just that YOU can’t be sure you are loved.” On a lighter note, every time I catch myself sloppily folding a grocery bag to store in the cupboard, I hear Robert, also sixteen years gone, growl: “Here, let me do that.” And I snap to attention and refold the bag as neatly as Robert did.
I pre-ordered the Torrey book, Evolving Brains, Emerging Gods: Early Humans and the Origins of Religion. Then I went on line and read about homo habilis and early homo sapiens. Then I drew some portraits of each. The eyes were what got to me. They glitter and confront their world exactly as our eyes do.
I was going to write about some memorable experiences on my June book tour, but this is enough for today. I’ll just add one drawing from the book tour. This is the author in Nashville, at Parnassus Books, the creation of Ann Patchett and Karen Hayes.
I had done my interview with the Book Talk host Stephen Usery and answered questions from the audience. (The Book Talk interview is on my web site, under “About Gail.” Beneath the bio, there are two new interviews, the Parnassus one and the NPR with Scott Simon.) Then Anne and Karen surprised me with a birthday cake for my soon-to-be 80th birthday.
After I had drawn the portraits of homo habilis and early homo sapiens yesterday, I leafed back to my Parnassus Books self-portrait, done a week or so ago.
Look at the glittering eyes apprehending their surroundings. For that matter, look at the faces. The resemblances speak for themselves.
I am them and they are me.