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PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | February 2007  

 

 

 

 

 

            Remembering Swami Vivekananda - I

 

 

 

            Editorial

 

 


     The human personality is essentially a bundle of memories. Our bodies are cast from the genetic memory that lies ensconced at the centre of every cell making up our tissues. Our psyche is a template moulded by our past actions, the grooves in which serve as channels for the flow of our thoughts and actions. And the huge reservoir of subliminal memories decides our propensities, innate skills, and the directions that our instinctual energies take. Consciously or unconsciously, we live our memories.

 

 

 

     The Vagaries of Memory

 

 

 

     Given the importance of memory in our lives, one would presume that nature would have given us robust mechanisms for recording objective facts, assessing the validity of our memory records, and protecting this record against the vagaries of time. True it has, but as both brain and mind are material entities, memory has its limitations. If memory is what we rely on to get our acts right, our memories also deceive us all too often. In fact, the very processes that allow the mind to use its memory capabilities in uniquely resourceful ways are also responsible for the caprice and frailties of memory with which we are all too familiar.

 

     The human minds exceptional capacity to generalize from limited information and to match patterns are cases in point. No computer has been able to approach anywhere near this capability till date. But what the mind gains in terms of extensity, it loses in terms of accuracy. For generalizations from limited information are always liable to being incorrect. The last two Australians I met, and it is not often that I meet Australians, were rather brusque. I start having a suspicion that Australians, in general, are rude. Now when I meet another Australian who tells me to my face that I am not helpful, my suspicion turns into a firm belief, a belief that may well last my lifetime.

 

     Our ability to match patterns can also lead us on to false trails. We might remember losing our way in a residential complex even though we had been there once earlier. Every street seemed to be the one we were looking for, and yet it wasnt. If we happen to know a pair of twins, we would remember how we often mistake one for the other. Less innocuous are situations when the victim of a crime misidentifies the criminal in an identification parade, leading to miscarriage of justice. Formal studies have shown that such mix-up of memory is not at all uncommon.

 

     The reason for the selectivity of memories and the mix-ups therein lies in the way our memories are manufactured and retrieved. What we choose to or are forced to remember is significantly affected by our emotional disposition. When in good mood we are likely to notice and recall happy events, while negative information sticks to our minds more easily during foul moods. More interestingly, information learnt when one is in a particular mood is more likely to be recalled when one is in a similar mood. That is why the whole world seems to be against you when you are depressed, and everything appears bright and sunny when you are in good mood.

 

     Highly emotional events are likely to light up our memory rather vividly, a phenomenon called flashbulb memory. Most octogenarian Indians are likely to remember where they were when they got the news of Gandhijis assassination, and most citybred youth will be able to recall what they were doing when they heard about the attack on the New York twin towers. But very few of us will be able to list all that we did on a particular day last week, simply because no strong emotions are attached to our daily routine.

 

     Two processes involved in ensuring accurate memory are source monitoring and reality monitoring; and both of these are prone to errors. Try to recall the last time you were involved in a group discussion where many ideas were shared. You are very likely to remember some statement that was mentioned, of which you are unsure who said it. But what we are unlikely to notice is that we often attribute statements to wrong persons due to a confusion of sources. We may be very sure that someone made a certain statement, which in actual fact that person never did.

 

     Reality monitoring is the process of deciding if a memory was generated from external events that we actually experienced or from our internal world of thought and imagination. Remember how after a busy hour in the kitchen you rushed back to your room and were then unsure if you switched off the gas? You seemed to remember you did, but when you went down and checked, you found you hadnt. This confusion of reality could also have serious consequences during eye-witness testimony. Researchers have documented that eye-witness accounts of events, which are given great weight in legal decisions, may not be as accurate as we take them to be. On occasions eye-witnesses may actually end up bearing false witness unknowingly.

 

     Besides confusion of sources and the mix-up of objective and subjective facts, eye-witness errors can be induced through several other mechanisms. One of these is suggestibility, wherein leading questions shape our recall and response. For instance, the question What was the brand of most of the scooters involved in the melee? is likely to elicit a brand name from a distant witness called to a trial many months after a road accident, even though, in reality, it was motorbikes that were primarily involved in the accident. We also tend to construct false memories unconsciously to give greater logical coherence to our recall. Children are known to build up elaborate imaginary stories in their minds which they often take to be real; this mental propensity may continue throughout our lives in varying degrees.

 

 

 

     Remembering History

 

 

 

     The chances that we will get called to testify at a trial are rather slim, and we rarely notice the distortions in memory that we suffer from. Even if we do take notice, such mix-ups are usually innocuous and are more likely to amuse than alarm us. And this is how it should be if we are to lead healthy lives.

 

     But if you are a critical reader, as you go through this and the next issue - which focus on Swami Vivekananda - you may be tempted to ask: What is the validity of the rich array of texts pertaining or attributed to Swami Vivekananda that are presented in these pages? For many of you, qualification for publication in this journal is in itself proof of their validity. For others it is the credentials of the author that grant the texts their validity. For still others it is the referencing that ensures authenticity.

 

     The more fastidious among you may wish to question the internal validity of the texts. What, for instance, is the accuracy of Mrs Hansbroughs reminiscences of Swamiji several decades after she last happened to be with him? How does her age affect her recall? Does it matter who was interviewing her, and what type of questions he chose to ask her? Are the records likely to have deteriorated with time? Does it matter who transcribes the texts and who edits them? Are all these questions likely to have a bearing on our understanding of the person that was Swami Vivekananda? Is it going to affect our understanding of his message?

 

     If our individual memories shape our personalities, history is shaped by our collective memories etched out in different media - archeological remains, written texts, oral tradition, and the like - all of which are as likely to be affected by the vagaries of selective and inaccurate documentation and faulty reading as our individual memories. It would be interesting to examine if our understanding of these facts affects our understanding of who Swami Vivekananda was.


 

       





International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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