It is already disorienting enough to accept that our attentionof the events and phenomena unfolding within and around us at any moment. Now that our memory only retains a fraction of what we have attended to in moments past. In the act of recollection, we take these fragments of fragments and try to reconstruct from them a totality of a remembered reality, playing out in the theater of the mind — a stage on which, as neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has observed in his , we often “use our minds not to discover facts, but to hide them.”
We do this personally — out of such selective memory and by such exquisite exclusion, we compose the narrative that is. We do it on the cultural level is a collective selective memory that excludes far more of the past’s realities than it includes. Borges captured this with his characteristic poetic-philosophical precision when he observed that “we are our memory… that chimerical museum of shifting shapes, that pile of broken mirrors.” To be aware of memory’s chimera is to recognize the slippery, shape-shifting we are grasping most firmly.
Nearly a century after Nietzsche admonished that what we call truth isthe great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (March 23, 1910–September 6, 1998) created an exquisite cinematic metaphor for the slippery memory-mediated nature of truth in his 1950 film Rashomon, based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove” — a psychological-philosophical thriller about the murder of a samurai and its four witnesses, who each recount a radically different reality, each equally believable, thus undermining our most elemental trust in truth.
As researchers in the second half of the twentieth century came toon the foibles of memory, Kurosawa’s masterpiece lent its name to the amply documented unreliability of eyewitness accounts. The Rashomon effect, detailed in this beautifully animated primer from , casts a haunting broader nimbus of doubt over our basic grasp of reality. We only exist, after all, as eyewitnesses of our own lives.
All of these psychological perplexities arise from the basic neurophysiological infrastructure of how memories form and falter in the brain — something the great neurologist Oliver Sacks explored in his, and something South African biomedical scientist Catharine Young explores in another TED-Ed episode, animated by the prolific :
Complement with— a graphic novel about how the mind works — and the animated science of , then revisit Virginia Woolf on , Sally Mann on , and neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin on .