Friday, June 15, 2007

Memory, Forgeting, Music and the Self

I listened to another mp3 program from's program, Radio Lab, on the topic of memory. I have three reflections on the mechanics of memory from that very informative program after listening to the fascinating story of Clive, a musician and conductor who was struck with a disease that took away his ability to remember anything more than 7 seconds in the past. It's an unbelievable story of someone with no past and no memories. All he has is the present. You can listen to that segment of the program here:

First Thought: The Scientists on the program explained memory as the creative act of rebuilding a memory, rather the mere retrieval of memories from a mental filing cabinet. This explains why memories can be added to or subtracted from as they are recalled over and over again. This got me to thinking about how that might relate to the idea of "Zikaron." When we ask Hashem on Rosh Hashana, "Ve'akeidas Yitzchok Lezaro Hayom Berachamim Tizkor!," "Remember the Akeidas Yitzchok for his children with mercy!," what are we really asking? When it says in Shmos 2:23, "וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נַאֲקָתָם; וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ, אֶת-אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יִצְחָק וְאֶת-יַעֲקֹב," that Hashem remembered his covenant with our fathers, what does that mean? Can Hashem forget anything?

If, however, memory is not simply the mechanical act of retrieval, but the re-creation of the old reality, when we ask Hashem to "remember," what we're really asking is for Hashem to invoke the reality of the past and make it part of the present, but in a much realer way than the mere analogy of re-creative human memory. So when Hashem remembers the Mesiras Nefesh of Yitzchok, He is re-creating that reality now, today, according to Rav Aharon Kahn from Yeshivas Yitzchok Elchonon (pictured to the left).

My second thought about Clive, the man with no memory, is: What am I? A collection of memories? What's the real "you?" I know the neshoma is the real me, but that is such a difficult concept to get one's head around. If I can't remember any of my past Gilgulim, in what sense is that really me? (I suppose that my conscious physical brain, independent of the real me is what can't remember, but still...) If, like Clive, at every moment I felt that I didn't know who I was, where I was, where I came from, what I was doing in that place, I would feel as if I had no "self," no "I." Can anyone out there offer a way to distinguish memory from "self?"

Third: One of the only two things this man with Amnesia did remember was music and his love for music. When people speak to him normally, he knows nothing about music, his life as a conductor, or anything related. However, when they placed his former students in front of him and gave him a conductor's baton, he immediately began reading the music, conducting and leading his students as proficiently as if nothing had every happened. When the piece was over, however, he didn't even remember what had happened. It was exactly as before. What was so deep about music that is is virtually the only thing this man can remember when he can remember nothing else?

In Rav Moshe Weinberger's shiur, "The Power of Music - Tazria-Metzorah," he explains the deep place in the soul that music is connected to. It's unbelieveable but somehow, the soul is deeply connected to music, such that hearing a certain song can evoke feelings from decades ago that had long since been dormant. It can stand out in a person with no memory of anything. It's an amazing koach, and it was very interesting to hear of this Amnesia case, where music was about his only connection to his former self. It is also a mussar haskeil that we have to take very seriously the types of music we listen to and the source of the music we listen to, since it has a very deep connection to who we are.

(Artwork is "Persistence of Memory" by Salvadore Dali)


DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

Amazingly connected. Music opened up his lost world. Thank you for sharing that.

-Dixie Yid

yitz said...


in a sense, we can connect to who we 'are' through our tastes.. our preference for certain foods/places/sounds/colors is connected to who we really are.

sometimes we like things because we associate it with a memory, but many times we like something for inexplicable reasons. (reasons related to our neshama, and the nitzotzot in that particular thing)

i once told my Rav that I wanted to find out about my soul and where it's rooted. He told me that Rav Kook said something along the lines of this: that it is more important for someone to pay attention to their particular tendencies and affinities in order to learn more about their soul than it would be for them to know their soul was connected to a specific sefirah/world/soulroot/etc.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


Perhaps the only part of Clive's life which was truly connected to his soul was his music (and his love for his wife, which was the only other thing he remembered). Everything else was not really part of him so it was forgotten. I hear what you're saying.

I'd still like to better understand what differentiate the self from one's memories...

-Dixie Yid

Moshe David Tokayer said...

It's interesting that Clive did not forget how to talk. I'm wondering if remembering music is like remembering language. Maybe he remembered the music because music is like language and for some reason he did not forget language.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

That's a good point. It sounds like you're right. But it would still be suprising, according to that explanation, that he even remembered how to read music (though he also remembered how to read and write) and conduct an orchestra, along with all of the words to songs that he used to know. Although, perhaps those are also part of the "language" of music...

-Dixie Yid

Anonymous said...

How is Self different from our memories?

Harken to the One. We all agree there is One God. And that God is All. So it follows that each of our souls, our self, are aspects of the one God.

Our soul is God growing. Like a tree of life it is growing. Our soul has had many, many embodiments, incarnations, if you will. The storehouse of good harvested from each of those episodes in human (and even perhaps other) existences are stored in and as what some have called our heavenly mansion.

Our self is the harvester of God's growing awareness of his own Self. It is through our soul that God experiences his joy (and sorrow). I have thought for a long time that "joy" means Joining the Om to You." In other words, God, as the All, as the OM, experiences joy whenever we join ourselves in consciousness to the One who is the creator of all of life, and exerience him as the real and only doer in our life.

It is like God is a little child receiving surprise gifts. He gives our souls free will, and therefore never knows what gift we will bring to him as, an expansion of consciouness, until by our union with him--through meditation and acts of service to other parts of his life--we return the life giving energy he has given us to it Source, the One. Then like a little kid receiving a toy train, he gives thanks to us by expanding our opportunity to grow and enjoy yet more of his life, which we are.

So, to answer the original question, "How is self different from our memories?" one way to see it is to accept God, the One as the ONLY Self that is, and each of our souls is a viewpoint of THAT One, growing. The memories are the gifts, born of our free will in action, that clothe our personality, God's personality. You can think of your Real Self as God, himself, and your soul as a power shopper, harvesting God goodness into eternality. You shop down here 'till you drop--literally. Then you come again, over and over in different human bodies, to shop for more goodness. And this continues until you have learned to live only divine love. Then you earn the final transformation, the final alchemical marriage of your soul to your eternal God Self. After that, you are free from the wheel of birth and death, and are truly born of the spirit, and go on into the ever expanding light of cosmic consciousness far beyond the mere human, divine incubator, experience.

As you can see, I've though about this a little. I hope my sharing helps open some passageways for your own meditations.

Lloyd Leiderman