In my last post I talked about the mechanics of memory, and the way those mechanics take a narrative form. I traced the ways affect potentiates memory, and the way both affect and memory effect perception and the interpretation of stimuli an organism encounters at a later date. According to Louis Cozolino, a psychologist whose work integrates neurology and psychotherapy, the implication of this is that “our past then [has] . . .an inordinate impact on our present.”[i] This is the case because of the interaction between explicit and implicit memory, which is part of the interaction between affect and cognition, and it is implicit memory that has the most powerful structuring force. In Cozolino’s words:
- Explicit memory describes conscious learning and memory, including semantic, sensory, and motor forms. These memory systems allow us to recite the alphabet, recognize the smell of coconut, or play tennis. Some of these memory abilities remain just beneath the level of consciousness until we turn our attention to them.
- Implicit memory is reflected in unconscious patterns of learning stored in hidden layers of neural processing, largely inaccessible to conscious awareness. This category extends from repressed trauma to riding a bicycle, to getting an uneasy feeling when we smell a food that once made us sick.
- Explicit memory is the tip of our experiential iceberg; implicit memory is the vast structure below the surface. Many of our daily experiences make it clear that we have multiple systems of explicit and implicit memory.
It is primarily the systems of implicit memory that a creative writer accesses: it is implicit memory and the affect that informs it which makes writing “creative” as opposed to expository. Expository writing, by definition, tends to access more explicit memories and cognitive functions. It is more factual, “dryer,” less memorable. It is those things in the affective register we remember best: it is affective response that signal that yes, this, this thing, this moment, this scene, this experience is important, is what means. Affective response signals to the right neurons to encode: “the sort of scenes that stick in our minds are those that, for one reason or another, were experienced in a state of emotional excitement” (Carter, 164).[ii] In a state of emotional excitement, the intensity of perception is increased, and long-term memory potentiation is enabled. These are precisely the kinds of scenes that the narrative poet encodes. These are the scenes that have shaken us, and situated us, and given us a way to understand our positions in the world. In his poem “In the Marsh,” from At the Bonehouse, the poet Jack B. Bedell encodes this kind of moment: