Sunday, April 09, 2017

Your nose is a time machine

As I walked on the river trail along the American River today, its smell took me back about 45 years or so. I am walking to fish with my brother and our grandfather. We enter the green strip of the Karasuk river, with our wooden fishing rods, and jar with grasshoppers, our bait. We also have a few earthworms, for another kind of fish. The river smells of wet grass, dirt, and water. Grandpa says: “If you take a bucket, won’t get any fish. If you don’t take a bucket, there will be a lot of fish to carry.” We have no fish bucket. The catch will be carried home on thin willow branches, going through fishes’ gills. I remember hundreds of details - how the hook is stuck in the rod to prevent the line from getting lose; that I have a jacket with pockets; how the river banks are, one tall and one low, how grasshopper chirp, etc., etc.

I wonder – what is the purpose of these memories? Why does human brain store all this useless information, and is able to recall it at a whiff, with all its entirety? Nothing is wasted in nature, so why so much memory space is committed to it? Of course, we do remember stuff that has significant emotional component – like everyone remembers where they were on 9-11. That is understandable – emotions are like computer tags for importance; they make protein bonds among neurons stronger. But I have not have a particular emotional high when we went to fish – it was something pleasant, but hardly critical. And yet I cannot remember what the University’s RTP policy says about the formation of primary evaluation committees, and what is the last name of the candidate we just interviewed. In fact, I still struggle to learn all my colleagues’ names.

Perhaps in childhood, the memory selection process is not yet developed, or it may work differently. This is why childhood memory have such significance for artists, film directors, and writers: they seem to be random, unexplainable, and excessive. They are needed to activate creativity – not because they are useful, but because they record the patterns of everyday life, like canvas is needed for a painting. I am thinking about people whose childhood memories triggered by smells, sounds, and word cues are painful, and ridden with anxieties. I have sine а that too, but overwhelmingly, my memories are rather pleasant. Isn’t this the main work of childhood – to build a stock of background memories that can be then used throughout life to paint more pictures on them? How’s that for an educational aim? Which standard is it going to be written in?

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