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10:01am on Wednesday, 18th January, 2006:

Memory and Reality


There are different kinds of memory.

If asked to calculate 17*23, I know that 17*3 is 51 so I do 20*17, which is (2*17)*10, which is 340, plus the 51 makes 391. The 51 there is in my long-term memory (it's just one of those multiplications I happen to "know") but during the sum it also goes in my short-term memory, since I need to remember to add it to 340. However, having done that, I've no need to remember it again until the next sum that uses it.

So we have long-term and short-term memory. We also have different kinds of long- and short-term memory. Remembering how to make a paper aeroplane and that Zagreb is the capital of Croatia and the face of your grandmother are all different kinds of memory.

Let's go with the grandmother kind, which is called episodic memory, or at least it was when I was teaching Artificial Intelligence in the 1980s. Bring to mind your grandmother's face (either one, or, if you didn't know your grandmother, someone else). Is she wearing a hat? OK, well let's give her a hat anyway, a big, green, floppy fedora. Can you see your grandmother wearing a big, green hat? Even though she probably never did nor never would wear such a hat in real life?

What we've just done is mix memory with imagination. Your grandmother's face is a memory — a recollection of an actual person's actual face. Putting the hat on her was an act of the imagination, because it was an imaginary hat. Yet did you feel any transformation from memory to imagination? Or did it feel like you were looking, with your mind's eye, at the same thing?

This memory/imagination sandbox is not as vivid as reality, at least not for people without a photographic memory. It's where dreams are played out as you sleep: anything can happen in it, but you always know when you're awake because the real world is just so much more, well, real.

I'm about to go into one of those "weird things I can do" discussions...

OK, I don't have a photographic memory, at least not in the conventional sense. If I look at a page of a book for a second, I can't close my eyes and tell you what it said. However, I could, maybe a year later, if given perhaps a week, read you what was on that page. So I sort of do have a photographic memory, only it takes me an age to dredge it up.

That's not particularly interesting, but it comes in later, promise!

Now, something I'm pretty sure I can do that not many other people can is write to my senses. What I mean by this is that I can tell my senses what they are sensing, and get it as vividly as if they actually were sensing it. If I want to smell roses, I can inhale and, yes, there's that scent of roses, just as if there were roses in the room. I can patch into my vision and replace what I see by something else. It's easier to maintain if I do the whole scene rather than parts, and it's also easier if I do it with one eye shut rather than both eyes open. Nevertheless, if I wanted to replace your head with a dragon's while we were engaged in conversation, I could do it. I know I'm doing it, though — I don't see things that aren't there without my being aware of it.

Well, I didn't until this morning at about 10 past 6.

I had a dream, as I was being woken up by the radio. I won't go into the details, as other people's dreams are always uninteresting, but it's the manner in which I dreamed which was surprising. This was a regular dream, which I realised was a dream, happening in regular memory/imagination/dream space. Then I woke up.

Except, I didn't wake up. I was still dreaming, but I was seeing everything in the full vividness of reality. I was using my write-to-senses ability to replicate the experience of awake reality, even though I was asleep. It was incredible! Normally, when I dream, information is there on a need-to-know basis. There may be no trees around, say, until I'm just about to notice that there are no trees around, whereupon there are trees. This, though, gave me everything — the sounds, the sights, the warmth of the sun — in total completeness. It was astounding — I was hugely impressed! I could have believed I really was awake, had I not been located in my home town as it was 30 years ago, rather than my bedroom as I knew myself really to be. It was like living a photographic memory I didn't have to spend an age to bring into focus. Utterly breathtaking — I just wish I could explain it better, I'm sure I'm not doing it justice.

It's left me with something of a dilemma, however, because having done it once I'm pretty sure I could do it again, deliberately. Should I, though? I don't use my sense-writing skill a great deal in real life because I prefer real life; I'd rather know how things are than how I'd like them to be. Dreams, though, aren't real anyway — yet I seem to have hit on the possibility of making them be real to me in every detail except one: that I know they're not real. Likewise, I don't use my ability to set dreams up for myself very often, because I don't want to come to rely on dreams to the extent that they lose their specialness. It's very, very tempting, though, to set myself up a dream which projects its own reality this convincingly — it's like my own, personal entertainment holodeck. I've no idea what caused the breakthrough this morning, but now it's happened I could have some serious fun with it.

What's holding me back is that I'm worried I might diminish reality. The difference between the real world and dreams is that things that happen in reality really do happen, whereas things in dreams — even ones (well, one so far) that are as vivid as reality — don't actually happen. If my dreams seem real, pretty soon reality will seem a dream. That's not a prospect I relish.

Maybe I'll try it tonight, just to make sure I can do it at will, then go from there.

I think too much about virtual worlds.

Referenced by Dream Experiment.

Referenced by Colours.

Referenced by An Old Memory.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).