Why do we need memory?

Memories, both good and bad have always fascinated me as topics for rumination and research. I had wanted to do a second part of this post but somehow it remained unwritten. I have now started working on it and will be posting it soon. So I thought of sharing this one again to refresh readers’ memories before going on to the next part 🙂

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Memory is such a wonderful thing. Don’t we all love going down memory lane because it makes us happy? I would say that it is definitely more pleasant than indulging in a bout of nostalgia. Memories are vibrant, while nostalgia often gives rise to a plethora of emotions ranging from wistfulness to sadness to dissatisfaction – all negative ones. Of course, while walking down memory lane sometimes unpleasant memories do push their way into our consciousness.

How do I know? Some years ago when I was suffering from severe drug-induced insomnia after a surgery, I used the trick of harking back to my childhood, recreating the scenes and images in great detail to help me relax and fall asleep in a trice. But as I mentioned earlier, sometimes they led to a particularly unpleasant or sad memory that in turn led to a chain of other such memories and then, Poof! I was wide awake and fidgeting even more than before!

Memories are indelibly imprinted in our subconscious minds and could surface unexpectedly and unbidden, at odd times. They are of different kinds and sometimes are much more than just personal ones. In fact, they are the basis our history, culture, arts, festivals, celebrations, commemorations, discoveries and inventions – the very basis of society and human civilisation.

Relationships are based on memories too, which is why there is no love without memories. Even gadgets and gizmos have memories, for heaven’s sake! And cyberspace is the repository of anything that goes online. What can function without memory? Precious nothing, if you ask me. But the most important characteristic of memories is that they need to be shared if one wants to enhance the joy or reduce the pain associated with them.

While we understand why we need pleasant memories, it is important to understand why unpleasant and downright traumatic ones are equally necessary. They are the ones that teach us to apply them when faced with similar situations that are not of our making.

Do read about how memory works, here. The concepts of autobiographical memory  and  DNA memory are also very interesting.

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In the Harry Potter series, J.K.Rowling gives a fascinating glimpse into the mystery and power of memory – the Patronus, the Pensieve, memory modification carried out on muggles when they happened to witness a magical occurrence and so on. The Patronus, which is the image conjured by the mind by focusing on happy memories, has the power to dispel even the Dementors or death-eaters. That is as real as it gets in this magical series. In an interview to The Times (UK), J.K.Rowling had said that she had created Dementors as a personification of depression.

‘It was entirely conscious, and entirely from my own experience. Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced…It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope.’ 

I am especially fascinated by the pensieve because it can help me organise my memories and deal with them at leisure without worrying about forgetting them. Why, I can even share them with someone whom I trust enough, without actually recounting them!

I would like to share an anecdote about the younger one here about the time he was five or six. He often used to hang around his elder brother and his friends and probably heard them discuss about humans having evolved from apes. His imagination must have run away with him, for he looked decidedly troubled when he came to me.

‘Amma, if we were all monkeys once, why don’t we remember anything about it?’ he asked in all earnestness.

It was an effort to control myself, from bursting out laughing. I tried to explain the whole thing in a way he could understand, but was not sure he did. Maybe he had a point there, what with scientists discovering DNA memory some years later – we should have been able to remember how we had behaved as monkeys! I wonder if he remembers this incident today 🙂

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Coming back to the post, for all our wishing that we could forget unpleasant memories, can we live without memory? Because if we want to forget bad memories, we have to give up the good ones too.  So when I came across  The Giver, a Newbery Honor book for young adults by Lois Lowry, I could not resist it, as it dealt with memory and its significance to human beings. Even though I don’t much like futuristic novels or sci-fi, The Giver had me hooked from the word go.

I am not going to do a book review here, but only talk about how Lowry has woven her tale around memory — or the lack of it.

Let us first look at the positive things in this hypothetical society. There is contentment because the citizens have all their needs met; there is no dissatisfaction since they don’t remember anything other than their present life and so there is no comparison — either good or bad with the past; there is no unemployment since each is assigned a profession at the age of 12 after which he or she gets trained in it to work till retirement; there is no crime since all citizens have no personal possessions, are well fed and taken care of; there are no rapes or other sexual crimes since all adults are given pills to control sexual passion once they enter adolescence; there is sameness and homogeneity with no differences in social and financial positions of the citizens.

And now for the drawbacks: geneticists have managed complete homogeneity in everything, and have worked on the memories of the citizens over ages so that they have forgotten colour, shapes, contours, culture, music, literature and arts. The landscape is flat, the sky and fields are colourless; there are no mountains and valleys or deserts; people don’t remember anything earlier than their own lifetime, which means that they have no concept of generations, grandparents and above all, history. The family unit is for convenience – of raising children till they are ready to take their places in the society. With feelings controlled by the ubiquitous rules, there is no love or any other positive emotions; there are no personal choices for anything — from getting a bicycle before the stipulated age of 10, finding a life partner and having babies. Coming to babies, they are born to assigned women and then given up for adoption; any indication that they are not fit means that they are ‘released’ in infancy. Releasing is used for adults too…those transgressing the rules of the society are ‘released’ to go ‘elsewhere’ after the third transgression.

In this society, governed by a committee of Elders, with a Chief at the head, scientists have done away with individual memory, but decide that they can’t delete them completely, for they know that memories are the fount of wisdom. Don’t we hark back to history to find a parallel, a solution to similar problems? So the Elders have invested the power of holding all the memories, of pain and pleasure,  colours, joy and sorrow — of generations past — with the Chief Elder, who is called the Giver . He holds the highest honour in the community, for he dips into his reservoir of memories and comes up with a solution when the committee of Elders is faced with a problem of governance which cannot be resolved by them.

There is a catch here: His memories are not his own but second-hand, having been passed down by the previous Giver and ‘back, back, back, back…’ (Remember no one has the concept of a past? So there is no word for past.) Also, so fragile are these ancient secondhand memories, that the Giver loses them when he passes them on to his successor, who then becomes their sole holder.

Jonas, the young protagonist has been selected to become the next Giver and has to train to become the holder of memories (Receiver) Elated at being chosen at first, he soon learns that to be the holder of memories is more frustrating than exhilarating. Exhilarating, because of the wonderful sensations and the vast expanse of knowledge that he gets when that the Giver passes them on to him through his touch, and frustrating because he is forbidden to share them with anyone. As he experiences colours, heat and cold and even sunshine, for the first time in his life, he yearns to share them with his best friend and family. Of what use is all the joy unlocked by memories when one can’t share them? He begins questioning the lack of choices and frets that he can’t opt out of being a Receiver.

When Jonas asks the Giver why the wonderful and sometimes painful memories can’t be shared, the Giver replies: “But then everyone would be burdened and pained. They don’t want that. And that’s the real reason The Receiver is so vital to them, and so honored. They selected me – and you – to lift that burden from themselves.”

How the Chief Elder and Jonas deal with this dilemma, forms the rest of the book. What comes through in this book is not just how dystopian a well regulated and controlled society can be despite the apparent benefits, but the significance of memories as the fount of wisdom. And finally how memories – both good and bad – can become burdens when they can’t be shared. This is the first of a quartet of books and I would love to read the others if I can find them in affordable paperback.

To round off, the next time you are struck with nostalgia, try going down memory lane instead. It is definitely more rewarding.

Homepage image courtesy: Fine Art America

This page top: The Mindful Semester

46 comments

  1. Very interesting and detailed explanation.Zephyr ,i like the way you think.

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    1. Thank you for reading and liking, Nilesh 🙂

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  2. […] (Read the first part of the post Why do we need memory here.) […]

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  3. Lovely post, Zephyr! The subject of memory is so fascinating!

    Yes, memories can be a burden. But having to carry the weight of memories is preferable to not being able to remember, I think. As you say, memories “are the very basis of our existence as humans.”

    And as a wise man said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So better to remember, than forget!

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    1. Burden of memories! Yes, that is what the second part is going to be about. The reason the past is forgotten is because we fail to recognise its importance when it was the ‘present’, I think especially when it comes to mistakes. I think none of us would be willing to let go of the bad memories if it meant giving up the good ones too!

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  4. Totally and utterly loved this! I’m looking forward to part 2 eagerly! What a fascinating subject and beautifully you have dealt with it!

    It’s such a pleasure reading you!

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    1. Bas?? And that too after inspiring me to do the second part? I am sure you will come back to comment with your valuable perspective once you have a little time on hand, right?

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      1. I’m waiting for the second part too… 🙂

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  5. upasna1987 · · Reply

    When you say- if you want to let go of bad memories, you will have to loose good ones too” Its scary because those memories are a part of my daily life, they make me smile, laugh and even proud of myself. I cannot let them leave me abandoned. No matter, they carry bad ones along. I am thankful for every single one. A very nice post and thanks for book recommendation. I am not an avid book reader but I started exploring them.

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    1. We need memories – good and bad. Period. The good ones make us feel nice and warm while the bad ones remind us of the lessons we learnt. Memories of loss help us look beyond the loss and find the good times and joy they had given us. If you are not an avid reader yet, I am sure you can turn into one. The best way is to start with your kids, they read, you read and voila! You have a family of readers!

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  6. As always, a thought-provoking post from you, Zephyr! You made me think of something I read in an essay on Mahabharata somewhere about memory and history being sort of prisons for human soul. The prison can of course be a pleasant one, at least for the time being (this ‘time being’ can be quite long, often lasting a full lifetime :)) But if I remember correctly the point being made in that essay (I wish I could remember where I read it – bad memory!!) was that a journey toward liberation would require us to transcend the limits of our memories and histories. Don’t you think, often our memories are not really very accurate – rather they are the result of what something in us ‘chooses’ to recall in a given state of mind, and the way those recalled images are reconstructed. I don’t know if I am able to express it very well, but I am sure you will get the just of what I am trying to say here 🙂

    I haven’t read the Harry Potter series or watched any of the films, but this book ‘The Giver’ sounds interesting, there is actually a movie also on similar lines. I saw it a couple of months ago, but again as usual I can’t recall its title (maybe because the movie failed to make any impact on me). But what I find very interesting from your description of the book and also a few sketches from the film I am referring to is this tendency of the western mind (or rather the more rational mind). Whenever it tries to imagine or envision a perfect society it ends up going to this absurd logical extreme of a homogeneous society with no scope for any diversity in human experience of any kind. This bland uniformity is not about fulfilling all the potential of human experience but rather killing major parts of it so as to enable a perfect collective life. This fascination with sameness is something so strange and so strongly entrenched in the mindset which only values rational and materialistic view of existence. That’s why memories too have to be erased mechanically, with pills etc. What if there could be a more humane way to enable a transcending of memories once their purpose in our inner evolution is fulfilled?

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    1. The reason I look forward to your comments is because they add so much to my posts 🙂 we are absolutely imprisoned by our memories which sometimes extend beyond one lifetime and we do need to break the shackles to be free. I guess that is what spirituality helps us do! And you are also right about selectively remembering things and embellishing details or even gloss over unpleasant ones so that we have memories that are ‘nice’ to recall. You know thinking about all these things had made me want to do a sequel to this post and after three years, I have got round to writing it and then it took Dagny’s post to prod me 🙂 Hopefully, the second part of this post might answer some questions that arose in my mind and I look forward to your inputs of course 🙂

      The thing with sci-fi novels is that they do go to extremes to make us believe that the future would the exact opposite of what we know now and make it as dystopian as possible. Also, as you say, they all revolve around homogeneity and sameness as if future generations are so shorn of imagination! That is the reason I don’t like them. Fortunately, there are those who fight the system and naturally they have to be Americans 😀

      Hopefully the next part should be up in a few days.

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      1. Looking forward to the sequel 🙂

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  7. […] had extensively dealt with the concept of ‘eldering’ was The Giver, about which I had written here. A carefully regulated futuristic society as the one described in the book, which had controlled […]

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  8. An amazing post Zephyr. Very very interesting.

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    1. Glad that you liked it, Amit. But I was hoping for some discussion from you 🙂

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  9. Interesting. I wish I had a pensive so that I could go back to those wonderful and not so wonderful moments too. It would indeed help us to take a second look at things and learn from the mistakes that we might have probably made:-)

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    1. Don’t we all? Memories are the repository of great wisdom, which is why there is a Giver and a Receiver to hold and keep them in this dystopian society.

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  10. Your post led me to try and imagine an existence without memory. We will live for the present, love people for what they are and not what they did and did not do according to our expectations. We will stop judging, wont harbour hatred, hurt and live a life sans regrets. But then memories exhilarate, they are a rich repository of our history, we learn from them. Without memories, we are but a shell.

    The book “The Giver” sounds like a fascinating read not just for young adults but adults as well.

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    1. This is exactly what I had felt when I began reading The Giver. But after a few pages, I began sensing a restlessness, gloom and doom. And then I was fighting along with Jonas to be able to have memories, to feel pain, laugh and cry. We indeed are nothing but empty shells without vibrant memories. And so wrote the post 🙂

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  11. jaishvats · · Reply

    You are right about the difference between memories and nostalgia. Also this is the first time I am reading about this comparison of dementors and it’s interesting. Coming to the book that world seems cold and lifeless. There are so many imaginative works and scientific theories about the future world. I wonder what would be reality 🙂

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    1. Oh yes, the world would be a dull and dreary place shorn of memories. I am happy to see that you agree with my definitions of memory and nostalgia. I am not a sci-fi buff but this one caught my eye. If you like the genre, you would love it. Come to think of it, you will love it even otherwise 🙂

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  12. First off, great to see another blog from you in quick succession.

    Memories – a storehouse, rather, of experiences – play a major role in Vipassana meditation. When an experience hits our senses – touch, smell, et al – they don’t evaluate it immediately. Our senses are dumb in certain ways, they’ll just experience it. It is left to another part of our mind to dredge up that part of our memories that is associated with such an experience. That past experience then develops into a sensation or a thought, which is what you react to. So if you don’t have memories, you won’t react to it. But we do. Either personal experience has generated memories, or someone else’s experiences have generated some sort of log entries in our memory database, both are brought up when we experience something anew. If we learn to detach our past memories from current experiences, what they did to us back then doesn’t affect us anymore.

    The very structure of our natural design is built upon duality. Each has to exist for the other to be present. Yin & Yang. Constantly in motion, constantly apart, yet each trying to take over the space occupied by the other. One cannot exist if the other departs. What do you compare it to? And both have some of the other in them too, for even that is required for some sustenance. Darkness cannot exist without being compared to light, and light cannot exist except to dispel darkness.

    The original dystopian novel, Orwell’s 1984, touches upon memories in great detail. How memories are manipulated, how what you thought in the past was right can be switched to wrong in just a moment, how histories are changed to reflect the current political scenario… But there still exists some form of basic rebellion within people that the system keeps trying to purge all the time. Yang within Yin. Every dystopian / utopian / sci fi novel and film since has tried to touch upon just this aspect, to bring out the repressed duality from the controlled unity. And in films – the Matrix and many others – the utopian part of the duality is in shades of white, the repressed other part is nearly always dark. Is it because our memories have connected the white to the known and the dark to the unknown?

    I’ll leave this comment here, for you to comment – as you surely will – about how wrong I am about things, or perhaps otherwise. I wanted to explain by example, but this comment is not the place for them. In our discussion, perhaps.

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    1. First of all, to respond to your last para:why not explain here by example? This is a forum for discussion. So please go ahead and do it.

      I didn’t know about memories being part of Vipassana meditation. It sounds very interesting and fascinating. You have explained about memory better than the link I have provided 🙂 You are right. The sensation has no meaning unless associated with an experience. It is precisely these ‘log entires’ that The Giver talks about as being in the custody of the Chief Elder, to whom they have been passed on. In short, getting the experiences of someone else many times removed from the one who originally experienced them.

      1984 sounds just great but I am unable to comment since I haven’t read it. You are right about the presence of duality in dystopian novels; it is logical, isn’t it? If not by comparison, how do we explain the one or the other?

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      1. I would certainly recommend reading 1984 and Animal Farm, both quite good Orwellian novels. Both touch upon memory in different forms.

        My comments are long as is. If I add examples, they’ll become longer than the post itself. Yet, let’s have a couple here.

        Let’s say one’s partner gives her a perfume bottle, something strong, something very loving. Later, they have an acrimonious breakup, and the experience leaves a very bad taste in one’s mouth. Some time later, when one crosses paths with someone else wearing the same perfume, she’s going to feel depressed and dejected. Why? She just smelled a strong, loving perfume, nothing else. Why did that depress her? Simple enough. When she smelt that perfume, her memories connected it with the same perfume that her partner gave her, and later broke up with her, come up to the surface. Memories are intricate matrices – you have no idea where one will lead you to. The memories of her breakup are depressing, and having them come to the fore will create chain reaction of depression today because that’s what happened back then. How does one get out of it? Memories are not going to stop arising – that’s their role, their job, their very existence. One has to stop reacting to them, by ensuring that what happened back then does not recur. Difficult to achieve, but fruitful even so.

        How does one ‘know’ that fire burns and is a wrong thing to run towards? As a child, if one runs towards the stove, his mother will strongly pull him back and spank him for what its worth. That’s the ‘log entry’ from other’s memories – they have had their own brushes with fire and heat and want us to protect ourselves. Slowly, as one grows older, his memories start realising what heat is, and develop a threshold – beyond this bad, below this good. When the senses sense heat, they compare it with the threshold one has set for himself, based on this stock of memories, and react accordingly. Well below the threshold, they act impudently. Close to the threshold, with caution. Beyond the threshold, with complete panic in getting rid of what is providing those sense inputs. These are not the memories one tries to get rid of – these log entries are required for our very survival.

        I wrote about Yin & Yang because I have seen this occur in a lot of fiction – utopian societies have only Yin, Yang does not exist. Not even the back dot in the middle of the white circle. The difficulty is that such a singularity is against nature, and nature tends to revolt. Very strongly. Hence, duality, Yang, disturbance, rebellion, et al: they tend to creep in all the time, and will try to break the system into some balance between thorough chaos and complete order. And that’s where true order will come in.

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        1. Ah, that is what happens sometimes — one memory leads to another and sometimes a bad one creeps in and spoils the party. I have had that experience countless number of times, especially trying to fall asleep 🙂 And yes, memories are never about a sensation or event, but about the experiences associated with them. I found your ‘log entries’ term fascinating. They really are, aren’t they?

          The yin and yang concept is interesting. But it need not always be the good that becomes cloying calling forth a rebellion. It can also be complete anarchy and then order, isn’t it? Or doesn’t it happen that way?

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          1. Memories – as I explain the ‘log entries’ – are just a cog in a vicious circle, and perhaps one of those few points from where you can choose to break that very circle too. Having done Vipassana – which explains this in a very practicable manner – I am able to explain this as lucidly as I hope I have.

            You’re right about Yin & Yang. When the white overwhelms, the black rebels to create balance. When the black overthrows, the white rationalizes its way into creating balance. Who is to say white is good and black the evil? Just because we understand through duality and pattern recognition does not mean that it is the only identification we can come up with. It may well be reverse too!

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  13. What’s up BM? You writing all spiritual posts these days. After reading your post, I was trying to comprehend, aren’t memory and nostalgia inter-related? And how would be a life without memory? If living without the memory of the past is a pain for the loved ones, life without the memory of the present is a curse. I got that book to read..First few pages went by pretty fast. But unfortunately I couldn’t complete it and returned it back. 😦 I was visualising how their world would be. Really sometimes not being able to remember is a gift. Don’t be surprised if I say, I didn’t read the Harry Potter series or watched the movies.

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    1. Of course both are the same, but the connotations are different, at least to my mind 🙂 We indulge in nostalgia only when we compare the present unfavourably with the past, as in : ‘We used to get rice for Rs.5 per kg in those days’, and then go on to talk about the inflation. See what I mean? Are you talking about memory in terms only of losing a loved one? But there are so many other facets to memory as well Latha! You must get the book back and complete it and then you will feel differently. I am far from becoming a spiritual writer 🙂 This is just a simple post on memory and its role in our lives.

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  14. Only you could have captured so many facets about memories. Indeed, memories are the basis of relationships; they help us grow and learn, and negative memories are important too. Yes, I found pensieve so fascinating in Harry Potter. The play around with words and the actual act of pulling a memory out was something I could actually visualize in the books. This is quite a fun way of doing a book review, isn’t it? Though, I must admit that I had to read this post twice to make it sink in. I think I need one more read, at least! Always a pleasure to read your thoughts coupled with some thorough research!

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    1. That is high praise Rachna! But there seem to be many comments saying that they need to read it again to comprehend it. Wonder if it is a nice way of saying it is too confusing? 😛 Kidding! You are right about the research, though. Have I told you that you have the most number of comments on my blog according to WP stats? Thanks for being such a supportive reader.

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  15. What is life if not for our memories…beautiful post..

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  16. There we those who preach that one can live in the past.
    No,unless,one recollects one’s past and the memories,one can not be look forward to a happier day ahead.

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    1. Quite right. We need the past to look ahead, but often we get entrenched in the past, with both good and bad memories keeping us chained and stop us from looking to the future.

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  17. What a beautiful intriguing post!
    I am glad we don’t remember anything about the era when we used to monkey around! Anyway happiness is all about a bad memory and good health.
    Hope you are doing good. It’s always a pleasure to read you.

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    1. Thank you for the warm words, Alka. I am doing good, thank you 🙂 I don’t entirely agree with the statement that bad memory helps good health, because good memories make for better health 🙂

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  18. What a mind boggling post! It’s tough to think what would happen if there were no memory but the irony is we will never know if it didn’t exist till a moment ago! I could not comprehend some reference from the book. Although, I enjoyed reading the reference to the younger one 😉

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    1. Glad that you enjoyed at least something in the post 😛 I loved your inference about having no memory and am pretty impressed that you came up with despite being befuddled by the post 🙂 Since I am no good at book reviews but want to share it when I read something interesting, I end up writing such posts. Maybe I should warn you in future??

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  19. Thats a really interesting thought..and the book seems to be really really interesting to read…I remember Appa telling me about someone who had written that ‘if you were told that the world came into existence a moment ago with an inbuilt memory you cant challenge it’ or something in those lines..Dont remember who exactly!

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    1. For all my reading up on memory, I am unable to fathom the meaning of your father’s quote 🙂 The book is simple actually and what I found fascinating was the passing on of memories and how they help Jonas.

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  20. Hi nicely written and well researched too. My father used to tell me that at a particular stage in life, people stop looking ahead and live only based on memories of the past, as he was. I do sometime experience that nowadays.

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    1. Thank you Sharbori. It is great to see you here 🙂 Sometimes change overtakes us in a hurry and then, we find solace looking backward, when things seemingly were manageable and slow. In our wistfulness, however, we don’t realise that it is an illusion created by time and distance and that things were as baffling in their changeability even then, right?

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  21. Interesting book and interesting thoughts.

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    1. Thank you TF 🙂

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  22. Fascinating discussion. That section on society with no memories made me yearn for a moment–doesn’t Ayurveda also basically talk about digesting our memories and letting it flow and that doshas are finally when memories get stuck both in our psychic and physical self? But yes, how then arts and literature? And yes, then who will bear the burden of memories? So much to think about…

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    1. I didn’t know that part about what Ayurveda says on memories being the cause of the doshas. Interesting. But that we need memories of all hues and kinds is indisputable for they are the very basis of our existence as humans.

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