Definition–Two forms–memorizing power related to habit; recalling power or “pure” memory. Is memory a function of the brain?–Pathological Phenomena. Memory something other than merely a function of the brain. The “Box” theory–Memory records everything–Dreams–The well-balanced mind–Memory a manifestation of spirit.
The importance of Memory is recognized by all persons–whether psychologists or not. At the present time there is a growing interest in systems of memory-training offered to the public, which aim at mental efficiency as a means to success in life. Indeed, from the tone of some advertisements seen in the press, one might be prompted to think that Memory itself was the sole factor determining success in either a professional or a business career. Yet, although we are likely to regard this as a somewhat exaggerated statement, nevertheless we cannot deny the very great importance of the power of Memory. How often, in everyday life, we hear people excuse themselves by remarking “My memory failed me” or “played me false” or, more bluntly, “I forgot all about that.” Without doubt, Memory is a most vital factor, though not the only one in mental efficiency.[Footnote: The true ideal of mental efficiency must include power of Will as well as of Memory.] It is an element in mental life which puzzles both the specialist in psychology and the layman. “What is this wonderfully subtle power of mind?” “How do we remember?” Even the mind, untrained in psychological investigation, cannot help asking such questions in moments of reflection; but for the psychologist they are questions of very vital significance in his science. For Bergson, as psychologist, Memory is naturally, a subject of great importance. We must note, however, that for Bergson, as metaphysician, it plays an even more important role, since his study of Memory and conclusions as to its nature lead him on to a discussion of the relation of soul and body, spirit and matter. His second large work, which appeared in 1896, bears the title Matiere et Memoire. For him, Memory is a pivot on which turns a whole scheme of relationships–material and spiritual. He wrote in 1910 a new introduction for the English Translation of this work. He there says that “among all the facts capable of throwing light on the psycho-physiological relation, those which concern Memory, whether in the normal or the pathological state, hold a privileged position.” [Footnote: Introduction to Matter and Memory, p. xii.] Let us then, prior to passing on to the consideration of the problem of the relation of soul and body, examine what Bergson has to say on the subject of Memory.
At the outset, we may define Memory as the return to consciousness of some experience, accompanied by the awareness that it has been present earlier at a definite time and place.[Footnote: The above is to be taken as a definition of the normal memory. In a subtle psychological analysis in the paper entitled Le Souvenir du present et la fausse reconnaissance in L’Energie spirituelle, pp. 117-161 (Mind-Energy), Bergson considers cases of an abnormal or fictitious memory, coinciding with perception in rather a strange manner. This does not, however, affect the validity of the above definition.] Bergson first of all draws attention to a distinction between two different forms of Memory, the nature of which will be best brought out by considering two examples. We are fond of giving to children or young persons at school selections from the plays of Shakespeare, “to be learned by heart,” as we say. We praise the boy or girl who can repeat a long passage perfectly, and we regard that scholar as gifted with a good memory. To illustrate the second type of case, suppose a question to be put to that boy asking him what he saw on the last half-holiday when he took a ramble in the country. He may, or may not, be able to tell us much of his adventures on that occasion, for whatever he can recall is due to a mental operation of a different character from that which enabled him to learn his lesson. There is here no question of learning by rote, of memorizing, but of capacity to recall to mind a past experience. The boy who is clever at memorizing a passage from Shakespeare may not have a good memory at all for recalling past events. To understand why this is so we must examine these two forms of Memory more closely and refer to Bergson’s own words: “I study a lesson, and in order to learn it by heart I read it a first time, accentuating every line; I then repeat it a certain number of times. At each repetition there is progress; the words are more and more linked together, and at last make a continuous whole. When that moment comes, it is said that I know my lesson by heart, that it is imprinted on my memory. I consider now how the lesson has been learnt and picture to myself the successive phases of the process. Each several reading then recurs to me with its own individuality. It is distinguished from those which preceded or followed it, by the place which it occupied in time; in short, each reading stands out before my mind as a definite event in my history. Again it will be said that these images are recollections, that they are imprinted on my Memory. The same words then are used in both cases. Do they mean the same thing? The memory of the lesson which is remembered, in the sense of learned by heart, has ALL the marks of a habit. Like a habit, it is acquired by the repetition of the same effort. Like every habitual bodily exercise, it is stored up in a mechanism which is set in motion as a whole by an initial impulse, in a closed system of automatic movements, which succeed each other in the same order and together take the same length of time. The memory of each several reading, on the contrary, has NONE of the marks of a habit, it is like an event in my life; it is a case of spontaneous recollection as distinct from mere learnt recollection. Now a learnt recollection passes out of time in the measure that the lesson is better known; it becomes more and more impersonal, more and more foreign to our past life.” [Footnote: Matter and Memory, pp. 89-90 (Fr. pp. 75-76).] This quotation makes clear that of these two forms of Memory, it is the power of spontaneous recollection which is Memory par excellence and constitutes “real” Memory. The other, to which psychologists usually have devoted most of their attention in discussing the problem of Memory, is habit interpreted as Memory, rather than Memory itself. Having thus made clear this valuable and fundamental distinction–“one of the best things in Bergson” [Footnote: Bertrand Russell’s remark in his Philosophy of Bergson, p. 7.]–and having shown that in practical life the automatic memory necessarily plays an important part, often inhibiting “pure” Memory, Bergson proceeds to examine and criticize certain views of Memory itself, and endeavours finally to demonstrate to us what he himself considers it to be.
He takes up the cudgels to attack the view which aims at blending Memory with Perception, as being of like kind. Memory, he argues, must be distinguished from Perception, however much we admit (and rightly) that memories enter into and colour all our perceptions. They are quite different in their nature. A remembrance is the representation of an absent object. We distinguish between hearing a faint tap at the door, and the faint memory of a loud one. We cannot admit the validity of the statement that there is only a difference of intensity between Perception and Recollection. “As our perception of a present object is something of that object itself, our representation of the absent object, as in Memory, must be a phenomenon of quite other order than Perception, since between presence and absence there are no degrees, no intermediate stages.” [Footnote: Matter and Memory, p. 315 (Fr. p. 264).] If we maintain that recollection is merely a weakened form of Perception we must note the consequences of such a thesis. “If recollection is only a weakened Perception, inversely, Perception must be something like an intenser Memory. Now, the germ of English Idealism is to be found here. This Idealism consists in finding only a difference of degree and not of kind, between the reality of the object perceived, and the ideality of the object conceived.” [Footnote: Matter and Memory, p. 318 (Fr. p. 267).] The maintenance of such a doctrine involves the further remarkable contention that “we construct matter from our own interior states and that perception is only a true hallucination.” [Footnote: Matter and Memory, p 318 (Fr. p. 267).] Such a theory will not harmonize with the experienced difference between Perceptions and Memories.[Footnote: Le Souvenir du present et la fausse reconnaissance, Revue philosophique, Dec., 1908, p. 568; also L’Energie spirituelle (Mind-Energy).] We do not mistake the perception of a slight sound for the recollection of a loud noise, as has already been remarked. The consciousness of a recollection “never occurs as a weak state which we try to relegate to the past so soon as we become aware of its weakness. How indeed, unless we already possess the representation of a past, previously lived, could we relegate to it the less intense psychical states, when it would be so simple to set them alongside of strong states as a present experience more confused, beside a present experience more distinct?” [Footnote: Matter and Memory, p. 319 (Fr. p. 268).] The truth is that Memory does not consist in a regression from the present into the past, but on the contrary, in a progress from the past to the present. Memory is radically distinct from Perception, in its character.
Bergson then passes on to discuss other views of Memory, and in particular, those which deal with the nature of Memory and its relation to the brain. It is stated dogmatically by some that Memory is a function of the brain. Others claim, in opposition to this, that Memory is something other than a function of the brain. Between two such statements as these, compromise or reconciliation is obviously impossible. It is then for experience to decide between these two conflicting views. This empirical appeal Bergson does not shirk. He has made a most comprehensive and intensive study of pathological phenomena relating to the mental malady known as aphasia. This particular type of disorder belongs to a whole class of mental diseases known as amnesia. Now amnesia (in Greek, “forgetfulness”) is literally any loss or defect of the Memory. Aphasia (in Greek “absence of speech”) is a total or partial loss of the power of speech, either in its spoken or written form. The term covers the loss of the power of expression by spoken words, but is often extended to include both word-deafness, i.e., the misunderstanding of what is said, and word-blindness–the inability to read words. An inability to execute the movements necessary to express oneself, either by gesture, writing, or speech, is styled “motor aphasia,” to distinguish it from the inability to understand familiar gestures and written or spoken words, which is known as “sensory-aphasia.” The commonest causes of this disease are lesions, affecting the special nerve centres, due to haemorrhage or the development of tumours, being in the one case rapid, in the other a gradual development. Of course any severe excitement, fright or illness, involving a disturbance of the normal circulation in the cerebral centres, may produce asphasia. During the war, it has been one of the afflictions of a large number of the victims of “shell-shock.” But, whatever be the cause, the patient is reduced mentally to an elementary state, resembling that of a child, and needs re-educating in the elements of language.
Now, from his careful study of the pathological phenomena, manifested in these cases, Bergson draws some very important conclusions in regard to the nature of Memory and its relation to the brain. In 1896, when he brought out his work Matiere et Memoire, in Paris, the general view was against his conclusions and his opinions were ridiculed. By 1910, a marked change had come about and he was able to refer to this in the new introduction.[Footnote: See Bibliography, p. 158.] His view was no longer considered paradoxical. The conception of aphasia, once classical, universally admitted, believed to be unshakeable, had been considerably shaken in that period of fourteen years. Localization, and reference to centres would not, it was found, explain things sufficiently.[Footnote: The work of Pierre Janet was largely influential also in bringing about this change of view.] This involved a too rigid and mechanical conception of the brain as a mere “box,” and Bergson attacks it very forcibly under the name of “the box theory.” “All the arguments,” he says, “from fact which may be invoked in favour of a probable accumulation of memories in the cortical substance, are drawn from local disorders of memory. But if recollections were really deposited in the brain, to definite gaps in memory characteristic lesions of the brain would correspond. Now in those forms of amnesia in which a whole period of our past existence, for example, is abruptly and entirely obliterated from memory, we do not observe any precise cerebral lesion; and on the contrary, in those disorders of memory where cerebral localization is distinct and certain, that is to say, in the different types of aphasia, and in the diseases of visual or auditory recognition, we do not find that certain definite recollections are, as it were, torn from their seat, but that it is the whole faculty of remembering that is more or less diminished in vitality, as if the subject had more or less difficulty in bringing his recollections into contact with the present situation.” [Footnote: Matter and Memory, p. 315 (Fr. pp. 264-265).] But as it is a fact that the past survives under two distinct forms, viz., “motor mechanisms” and “independent recollections,” we find that this explains why “in all cases where a lesion of the brain attacks a certain category of recollections, the affected recollections do not resemble each other by all belonging to the same period, or by any logical relationship to one another, but simply in that they are all auditive or all visual or all motor. That which is damaged appears to be the various sensorial or motor areas, or more often still, those appendages which permit of their being set going from within the cortex rather than the recollections themselves.” [Footnote: Matter and Memory, p. 317 (Fr. p. 266).] Going even further than this, by the study of the recognition of words, and of sensory-aphasia, Bergson shows that “recognition is in no way affected by a mechanical awakening of memories that are asleep in the brain. It implies, on the contrary, a more or less high degree of tension in consciousness, which goes to fetch pure recollections in pure memory, in order to materialize them progressively, by contact with the present perception.” [Footnote: Matter and Memory, p. 317 (Fr. p. 266).]
In the face of all this mass of evidence and thoroughness of argument which Bergson brings forward, we are led to conclude that Memory is indeed something other than a function of the brain. Criticizing Wundt’s view,[Footnote: As expressed in his Grundzuge der physiologische psychologie, vol. I., pp. 320-327. See Matter and Memory, p. 164 (Fr. p. 137).]Bergson contends that no trace of an image can remain in the substance of the brain and no centre of apperception can exist. “There is not in the brain a region in which memories congeal and accumulate. The alleged destruction of memories by an injury to the brain is but a break in the continuous progress by which they actualize themselves.” [Footnote: Matter and Memory, p. 160 (Fr. p. 134).] It is then futile to ask in what spot past memories are stored. To look for them in any place would be as meaningless as asking to see traces of the telephonic message upon the telephone wire.
“Memory,” it has been said, “is a faculty which loses nothing and records everything.” [Footnote: Ball, quoted by Rouillard, Les Amnesies, Paris, 1885, p. 25; Matter and Memory, p. 201 (Fr. p. 168).] This is only too true, although normally we do not recognize it. But we can never be sure that we have absolutely forgotten anything. Illness, producing delirium, may provoke us to speak of things we had thought were gone beyond recall and which perhaps we even wish were beyond recall. A somnambulistic state or even a dream may show us memory extending far further back than we could ordinarily imagine. The facing of death in battle, we know, recalls to many, with extreme vividness, scenes of early childhood which they had deemed long since forgotten. “There is nothing,” says Bergson, “more instructive in this regard than what happens in cases of sudden suffocation–in men drowned or hanged. The man, when brought to life again, states that he saw in a very short time all the forgotten events of his life, passing before him with great rapidity, with their smallest circumstances, and in the very order in which they occurred.” [Footnote: La Perception du Changement, pp. 30-31, and Matter and Memory, p 200 (Fr p 168).] Hence we can never be absolutely sure that we have forgotten anything although at any given time we may be unable to recall it to mind. There is an unconscious memory.[Footnote: Cf. Samuel Butler’s Unconscious Memory.] Speaking of the profound and yet undeniable reality of the unconscious, Bergson says,[Footnote: Matter and Memory, pp 181-182 (Fr. pp. 152-153). See also Le Souvenir du present et la fausse reconnaissance, Revue philosophique, Dec., 1908, p. 592, and L’Energie spirituelle, pp. 159-161 (Mind-Energy).] “Our unwillingness to conceive unconscious psychical states, is due, above all, to the fact that we hold consciousness to be the essential property of psychical states, so that a psychical state cannot, it seems, cease to be conscious without ceasing to exist. But if consciousness is but the characteristic note of the present, that is to say, of the actually lived, in short, of the active, then that which does not act may cease to belong to consciousness without therefore ceasing to exist in some manner. In other words, in the psychological domain, consciousness may not be the synonym of existence, but only of real action or of immediate efficacy; limiting thus the meaning of the term, we shall have less difficulty in representing to ourselves a psychical state which is unconscious, that is to say, ineffective. Whatever idea we may frame of consciousness in itself, such as it would be if it could work untrammelled, we cannot deny that in a being which has bodily functions, the chief office of consciousness is to preside over action and to enlighten choice. Therefore it throws light on the immediate antecedents of the decision and on those past recollections which can usefully combine with it; all else remains in shadow.” But we have no more right to say that the past effaces itself as soon as perceived than to suppose that material objects cease to exist when we cease to perceive them. Memory, to use a geometrical illustration which Bergson himself employs, comes into action like the point of a cone pressing against a plane. The plane denotes the present need, particularly in relation to bodily action, while the cone stands for all our total past. Much of this past, indeed most of it, only endures as unconscious Memory, but it is always capable of coming to the apex of the cone, i.e., coming into consciousness. So we may say that there are different planes of Memory, conic sections, if we keep up the original metaphor, and the largest of these contains all our past. This may be well described as “the plane of dream.” [Footnote: See Matter and Memory, p. 222 (Fr. p. 186) and the paper L’Effort intellectuel, Revue philosophique, Jan., 1902, pp. 2 and 25, L’Energie spirituelle, pp. 165 and 199 (Mind-Energy).]
This connexion of Memory with dreams is more fully brought out by Bergson in his lecture before the Institut psychologique international, five years after the publication of Matiere et Memoire, entitled Le Reve. [Footnote: Delivered March 26, 1901. See Bibliography, p. 153.] The following is a brief summary of the view there set forth. Memories, and only memories, weave the web of our dreams. They are “such stuff as dreams are made on.” Often we do not recognize them. They may be very old memories, forgotten during waking hours, drawn from the most obscure depths of our past, or memories of objects we have perceived distractedly, almost unconsciously, while awake. They may be fragments of broken memories, composing an incoherent and unrecognizable whole. In a waking state our memories are closely connected with our present situation (unless we be given to day-dreams!). In an animal memory serves to recall to him the advantageous or injurious consequences which have formerly arisen in a like situation, and so aids his present action. In man, memory forms a solid whole, a pyramid whose point is inserted precisely into our present action. But behind the memories which are involved in our occupations, there are others, thousands of others, stored below the scene illuminated by consciousness. “Yes, I believe indeed,” says Bergson, “that all our past life is there, preserved even to the most infinitesimal details, and that we forget nothing and that all that we have ever felt, perceived, thought, willed, from the first awakening of our consciousness, survives indestructibly.” [Footnote: Dreams, p. 37. For this discussion in full, see pages 34-39, or see L’Energie spirituelle, pp. 100-103 (Mind-Energy).] Of course, in action I have something else to do than occupy myself with these. But suppose I become disinterested in present action–that I fall asleep–then the obstacle (my attention to action) removed, these memories try to raise the trap-door–they all want to get through. From the multitude which are called, which will be chosen? When I was awake, only those were admitted which bore on the present situation. Now, in sleep, more vague images occupy my vision, more indecisive sounds reach my ear, more indistinct touches come to my body, and more vague sensations come from my internal organs. Hence those memories which can assimilate themselves to some element in this vague mass of very indistinct sensations manage to get through. When such union is effected, between memory and sensation, we have a dream.
In order that a recollection should be brought to mind, it is necessary that it should descend from the height of pure memory to the precise point where action is taking place. Such a power is the mark of the well-balanced mind, pursuing a via media between impulsiveness on the one hand, and dreaminess on the other. “The characteristic of the man of action,” says Bergson in this connexion, “is the promptitude with which he summons to the help of a given situation all the memories which have reference to it. To live only in the present, to respond to a stimulus by the immediate reaction which prolongs it, is the mark of the lower animals; the man who proceeds in this way is a man of impulse. But he who lives in the past, for the mere pleasure of living there, and in whom recollections emerge into the light of consciousness, without any advantage for the present situation, is hardly better fitted for action; here we have no man of impulse, but a dreamer. Between these two extremes lies the happy disposition of a memory docile enough to follow with precision all the outlines of the present situation, but energetic enough to resist all other appeal. Good sense or practical sense, is probably nothing but this.” [Footnote: Matter and Memory, p. 198 (Fr. pp. 166-167).]
In the paper L’Effort intellectuel, contributed in 1902 to the Revue philosophique, and now reprinted in L’Energie spirituelle,[Footnote: Pp. 163-202. See also Mind-Energy.]Bergson gives an analysis of what is involved in intellectual effort. There is at first, he shows, something conceived quite generally, an idea vague and abstract, a schema which has to be completed by distinct images. In thought there is a movement of the mind from the plane of the schema to the plane of the concrete image. Various images endeavour to fit themselves into the schema, or the schema may adapt itself to the reception of the images. These double efforts to secure adaptation and cooperation may both encounter resistance from the other, a situation which is known to us as hesitation, accompanied by the awareness of obstacles, thus involving intellectual effort.
Memory then, Bergson wishes us to realize, in response to his treatment of it, is no mere function of the brain; it is something infinitely more subtle, infinitely more elusive, and more wondrous. Our memories are not stored in the brain like letters in a filing cabinet, and all our past survives indestructibly as Memory, even though in the form of unconscious memory. We must recognize Memory to be a spiritual fact and so regard it as a pivot on which turn many discussions of vital importance when we come to investigate the problem of the relation of soul and body. For “Memory must be, in principle, a power absolutely independent of matter. If then, spirit is a reality, it is here, in the phenomenon of Memory that we may come into touch with it experimentally.” [Footnote: Matter and Memory, p. 81 (Fr. p. 68).] “Memory,” he would remind us finally, “is just the intersection of mind and matter.” [Footnote: Matter and Memory, Introduction, p. xii.] “A remembrance cannot be the result of a state of the brain. The state of the brain continues the remembrance; it gives it a hold on the present by the materiality which it confers upon it, but pure memory is a spiritual manifestation. With Memory, we are, in very truth, in the domain of spirit.” [Footnote: Matter and Memory, p. 320 (Fr. p. 268).]