Jane Austen on Memory


Memory Illusions



In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny Price, a thoughtful and unassuming young woman, makes the following observations to a certain Miss Crawford: “If any one faculty of our nature may be called morewonderful than the rest, I do believe it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient—at others, so bewildered and so weak—and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control!—We are to be sure a miracle every way—but our powers of recollecting and forgetting, do seem peculiarly past finding out.” (538) The author then reports Miss Crawford’s reaction: “Miss Crawford untouched and inattentive, had nothing to say; and Fanny perceiving it, brought back her own mind to what she thought must interest.” (539) Here we see Jane Austen at her most philosophical and, gratifyingly, mysterian. She clearly finds memory fascinating, but also “peculiarly past finding out”. She also realizes that such questions are not for the shallow of mind. The philosophical reader duly warms to Miss Price, who is already very much in our good books on account of her virtue and modesty (in her inventor we see yet another sign of genius).

Austen is comparing memory to our other “intelligences”, presumably including perception and thought. Her observation is that memory is more arbitraryin its powers than they are. To be sure, perception and thought have their failures and breakdowns—they are subject to error—but these weaknesses are fairly regular and predictable, while the powers of memory vary for no discernible reason. Sometimes we cannot for the life of us remember what we want to, but at other times memory pursues us relentlessly, refusing to relinquish its contents no matter how we may feel about them. Perception is not subject to the will, while thought is, but memory is partiallysubject to the will—sometimes under our control and sometimes very much not. The reasons for this are obscure: why do we so vividly remember some things, often seemingly insignificant, while others slip too easily from memory? I cannot ever choose what to see, while I can always choose what to think about, but I have partial choice when it comes to remembering things. Thus memory seems poised somewhere between perception and thought. It is quasi-perceptual and quasi-cognitive.

Then there is the question of its scope and limits. Perception is limited to the present moment and the impinging environment, though it handles an immense amount of information simultaneously. Memory has a broader scope, taking in large tracts of the past and being relatively independent of time of occurrence (you can often remember your childhood more vividly than last year). Perceptions rapidly come and go, while memories can linger indefinitely. Thought ranges more widely still, taking in the future as well the past and present, and including things not perceptible at all (you can think about atoms but you can’t remember what they did, not directly anyway). So memory falls between these two poles. My question is whether it is subject to illusions. There are clearly perceptual illusions, while thought is not vulnerable to illusions (though error is commonplace), but what about memory? Does memory sometimes give rise to illusions of the past? Errors, certainly, but are there also actual illusions? I don’t mean memories of past perceptual illusions, like remembering that Muller-Lyer illusion you saw yesterday; I mean specifically memory illusions, where a memory impression misrepresents a past event. If so, what are these illusions, what types do they fall into, what laws govern them? Are they analogous to perceptual illusions or are they sui generis? The question is not an easy one, despite its simplicity. On the one hand, memory has a sensory, particularly visual, dimension: we have sensory image-like impressions of the past. These can be inaccurate, as when one remembers a face with the wrong color eyes or a page with a word misplaced. It is tempting to describe this phenomenon as a visual illusion of the past not merely as a false belief. One can also have a complete hallucination of the past, as when one appears to recall a past event in full vividness that simply didn’t happen. These seem rather like mirage cases or seeing two equal lines as different in length: a sensory misrepresentation of the world, but relating to the past state of the world. The memory system has delivered up a mental representation that fails to fit the “stimulus”. False beliefs may be formed, as in the perceptual case.

Yet, on the other hand, what we don’t find are reliable, predictable illusions generated by certain types of configurations of objects—as in the moon illusion or the Muller-Lyer illusion. It is not that whenever one remembers the moon it always seems larger than it really is, or that memories of adjacent parallel lines always present them as unequal in length. Memory “illusions” are haphazard, unsystematic, and unrelated to the properties of the stimulus; they are more like errors of belief in this respect. There are apparently no laws of memory illusion analogous to the laws of perceptual illusion (faces with brown eyes don’t always produce memories of blue eyes).[1] Moreover, memory errors are correctable in the light of contradictory knowledge, unlike perceptual errors, which are incorrigible in the light of true belief.[2]Thus the moon illusion and the Muller-Lyer illusion persist even when one knows quite well that the facts are otherwise than they appear, but memory impressions are permeable by extraneous knowledge—you will not keep on remembering things a certain way once you have been enlightened (at least there is the possibility of a change of impression, unlike in the perceptual case). This makes sense, given that memory lies somewhere between the perceptual systems and the central cognitive system. Memory thus seems vulnerable to something likeperceptual illusion but also unlikeit. It is neither fully one thing nor the other (as Jane Austen intimates).

I think, then, that there is no clear answer to my question, because memory provides a counterexample to the dichotomy between perceptual and cognitive error. Perhaps we can say that it gives rise to quasi-illusions, where the qualifier simply indicates being betwixt and between. In other terminology, memory is neither an encapsulated module nor a general-purpose ratiocinator. On balance, I would say that it is not susceptible to illusion in the strict sense, but that it does give rise to sensory misrepresentation as a matter of course. In fact, it is moreprone to sensory error than the senses themselves, being less governed by psychophysical laws; but these errors are not as rooted in the architecture of the system as perceptual illusions. The senses systematically act in ways that can defy our reasoned view of things, as autonomous informational agents; but memory is not so cut off from reason, not so independent of cognition in its operations. It is puzzling and counterintuitive, quite exceptional in our psychological economy; whether it is “peculiarly past finding out” is another question, but not one to dismiss. It is noteworthy how little philosophical reflection has been devoted to it in comparison with perception and thought.[3]As Miss Price remarks, no doubt we are all “miracles”, but memory seems especially impenetrable even in its most quotidian operations.



[1]The closest thing I can think of concerns memory impressions of elapsed time. We remember a busy time as passing quickly while a boring time is remembered as passing slowly, and this seems somewhat lawlike. But even here the illusion has its source in the contemporaneous perception of time in the two cases not in an inherent tendency to illusion in memory as such.

[2]See Jerry Fodor, The Modularity of Mind.

[3]In contrast memory has been a staple of psychology since its inception, with much experimentation and theory devoted to it. I don’t recall ever hearing the question of memory illusions discussed, though failures of memory are routinely studied. Psychologists recognize how perplexing memory is, though I have not heard of one who takes Austen’s mysterian line.

3 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Just to elaborate a little more on your comment that memory seems to be poised somewhere between perception and thought: perception presents itself as if it were in toto, but needs to be re-probed to be explored (we constantly look again to see the details, explore the landscape); while thinking is like traversing a thread – one we are creating or co-creating. Memory seems to involve both aspects in a united way. Before the memory is fully formed, I feel the memory is there in totality, though I cannot see it all: sometimes it needs to be unravelled, sometimes I need to trace the thread back into the maze.

  2. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Is it possible to have two distinct memories of what you know to be the same event (I mean same space and time)? I am not sure it is. But if it is, is it possible to have two conflicting (as opposed to complementary) memories of the same event?

    (I ask as many optical illusions rely on the ability for an individual to see the one thing in more than one way.)

    If not, why not? Is this one of the ways memory is like thought? And is this related to what you say in your last paragraph?

  3. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Memories seem to have their basis both in what’s out there (as do perceptions) as well as what is inside (as do thoughts). For example, consider shared memories (being able to share, or to have shared, memories seems to be a necessary condition for being human). There is a sense a shared memory is out there (like a mountain we boh are perceiving is) and sense it is inside (as is a thought we share, either beacuse it is innate or because it has been transplanted into both of us).


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