Bombarded by the Arbitrary

Recently, Gus discussed an interesting story about a parrot that was able to string together the sounds that, to human ears, made up its address. He observes that "this episode reminds me of a discussion of the epistemological status of the arbitrary, in which Leonard Peikoff likens arbitrary pronouncements to the squawkings of a bird."

While this doesn't directly relate to the following story, I think there might be some tie-in. Recently, I learned of a memoir by a woman who has a near-perfect recollection of everything that has happened to her for the last 34 years. Jill Price's book is called "The Woman Who Can't Forget," and the review of it in Newsweek is quite fascinating.

Essentially, Price can recall nearly every mundane, non-essential thing she has experienced. Give her a random date from 20 years ago, and she can recall what color socks she wore, and if it was humid that day.

In and of itself, this doesn't seem like it would be debilitating, except that she apparently can't stop the memories. In fact, she has what she describes as a movie of seemingly random memories playing in her mind at all times, that she must actively ignore in order to function. She said in an interview, "Well, like I'm sitting here talking to you but I also have a running movie of endless memories that just are constantly flowing through my head, free flowing. So it's not anything that is connected to one other thing. It's just constant, you know, memories throughout my life. It's like watching a home video." In essence, she is constantly bombarded by the arbitrary. From Gus' link to the Ayn Rand Lexicon:
An arbitrary claim has no cognitive status whatever. According to Objectivism, such a claim is not to be regarded as true or as false. If it is arbitrary, it is entitled to no epistemological assessment at all; it is simply to be dismissed as though it hadn’t come up . . . The truth is established by reference to a body of evidence and within a context; the false is pronounced false because it contradicts the evidence. The arbitrary, however, has no relation to evidence, facts, or context. It is the human equivalent of [noises produced by] a parrot . . . sounds without any tie to reality, without content or significance.
Her memories are not arbitrary themselves. They did actually happen. But as a steady and random stream with little or no bearing on her immediate perceptions or thoughts, they become arbitrary (assuming that they don't actually represent the subconscious.)

My first thought upon hearing her story was that I wondered if she leads a truly concrete-bound existence. Can she form abstract concepts like most people? Can she collect facts, strip away non-essentials and then generalize? Or is she irrevocably tied to the the perceptual level, battling the flood of random memories, trying to keep her head above the torrent? Based on what I read, that does not appear to be the case, and she lives and functions rather well.

It's such a bizarre situation that it's difficult for me to imagine having to deal with it. Sure, sometimes I would like to have a better recollection of certain situations, but think of how much perceptual data you "throw away" on a daily basis because it simply isn't needed. It isn't useful information, it doesn't add value to your life or help you reach greater levels of understanding on any topic. The fact that you ate beets for dinner three years, six months, and five days ago is so irrelevant as to be absurd. Now imagine not being able to forget it, and then imagine that and every other mundane memory bombarding you, every waking minute of your life.

With this, I think the final paragraph of the Newsweek review is rather illuminating, both for the observations the reviewer makes, and the conclusions he draws (and doesn't draw) from them:
But the sobering thing about Price's book is how banal most of her memories are. The days go by, lunch follows breakfast, 10th grade turns inexorably into 11th... Her life was not without excitement... or drama of a conventional sort: her parents separate and get back together; her mother survives a tumor... No one should gainsay her feelings, but knowing what was playing on the TV during these events doesn't add much to our understanding of them, or of her. I hate to admit it, but confronted with a memoir that is guaranteed to be completely accurate, I can't help thinking that, with the same material, a writer with a little imagination could have written a much better book. (emphasis added)
It's interesting to ponder whether the very fact that Price can't stop the flood of arbitrary memory, and can't forget the detailed mundanities of daily life that the rest of us happily let go of, makes it impossible for her to write a memoir with "a little imagination."

Also see Glenn Beck's interview with her.


Monica said...

I recently read Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin, an autistic, who claims that her condition gives her insight into understanding how animal minds work. It was fascinating stuff. Apparently, many people with autism function on a more perceptal level and have difficulty with higher level concepts.

This only incidentally relates to your post, but I thought I'd drop by and mention it. I wonder if some of the physiology behind this enhanced memory function in the woman described might be related to autism.

C. August said...

That's an interesting thought about autism. I think the researcher is looking into the physiology and is planning on an MRI in the next few months.

I'm not sure about the autism/animal mind connection, though I suppose it might give someone a "clue" about a perceptual level view. Without knowing any more about it though, it sounds a bit like someone claiming to have visions or a mystical insight into how to "talk to the animals".

In all of this, however, it's interesting to think about a mind that is functioning differently, and how it can highlight aspects about normal cognition.