How Flawed Memories Teach Us What's True

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Jussi Hovenen sings songs that few people care to hear nowadays. He's the last rune singer in Finland -- the only living man who can still sing most of his ancestors' great ballads and epics from memory. Documentarians have recorded hours of video footage of Jussi as he strums and sings his way through the Kalevala and other old Finnish poems; and by the time those recordings are finished we may feel that we no longer need Jussi at all. The data he carries has, after all, been copied onto more durable media.

Unless I greatly underestimate the humanity of HuffPost readers, though, I'm betting that most of us don't feel that way. Jussi is more than a receptacle for data; more than a breathing mp3 player. Like Johnny Cash and B.B. King in their golden years, Jussi remembers a lifetime of hardships and lessons learned; private battles waged, lost and won; and those stories come through in his voice, even when he's singing stories much older than he is. When Jussi sings of his ancestors, each retelling becomes a new story: Old words spoken for the first time in history.

Among all the creatures on planet Earth, only we humans can pass on our knowledge this way -- not just from mother to son to grandson, but from thousand-year-old ancestors down to the last living singers of dying songs. -- Ben Thomas

Memories, like songs and stories, grow and change as storytellers do. Each time we recall an event, our brains are actually recalling the last time we recalled that memory -- like a game of "telephone" in which every player repeats the message as filtered through his or her own thoughts. In fact, functional MRI studies have found that our memories actually change to conform to our social group's interpretation of events. On a physical, neurological level, your brain never stops rewriting the stories that make up your life.

And yet we trust our memories -- cherish them, even -- because, really, what other choice do we have? Even as we watch our elders battle memory disorders like Alzheimer's -- or, in one man's case, incessant déjà vu -- we continue to ply them for stories of their adventures, their romances, the survival tactics they've gleaned over long years spent struggling up from hardship to prosperity. Who cares, we say, if a few details get distorted? The experiences are just as real; the lessons every bit as priceless.

Among all the creatures on planet Earth, only we humans can pass on our knowledge this way -- not just from mother to son to grandson, but from thousand-year-old ancestors down to the last living singers of dying songs. We tell proud stories of our forefathers' carvings in stone; of Latin inscriptions and Babylonian tablets -- but these are, in the end, just the survivable media of long-dead generations: Kindle downloads of the ancients. No; the real vital principle of language -- its magic, if you will -- only takes form when you listen to an old Finnish man singing stories with a cracking voice; or when you hear a poet reciting lines from the Odyssey in their original Homeric Greek dialect, and you realize you're hearing the living voice of a man who died 2,600 years before you were born.

Language, then, doesn't just enable us to carve our thoughts in stone, but to pass them on through living vessels, each of whom repaints our memories on his or her own canvas. As Joshua Foer tells us in his TEDTalk, each one of us puts his or her own "associative hooks into [words], to make them easier to fish out at a later date." Unlike words on a page or a stone tablet, our memories aren't word-for-word, but topic-for-topic: Like Jussi Hovenen, we tell brand-new stories every time we recall the old ones. Our memory distortions -- these flaws in the process -- are signs of a weakness called "intelligence," just as bubbles in blown glass show that human hands and lungs have been at work.

In his novel The Voice of the Fire, Alan Moore recounts the tale of a cabal of stone-age elders who gather from distant villages to engineer a great work: A new kind of road. This new road, they tell their villagers, won't be made of packed dirt but of song -- rhyming verses chained one after another, each verse telling the route from one village to the next, all the way from the far-off mountains to the edge of the sea. When the song is complete, an elder in every village will learn its rhymes by heart, and no traveler need ever be lost again.

That song -- if it ever truly existed -- is long-lost to us. We know how the ancient Egyptians calculated fractions, but we'll never know the melody a stone-age hunter sang as he found his way to the sea. To hear the living, beating heart of a memory, you need more than words and a medium. You need a storyteller who'll sing you the song -- distortion and all.

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