Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Material Mnemonics

My four-year-old nephew recently fell and hit his head, and when he regained consciousness he had a concussion. David did not know his own name, age, where he was, etc, but he did know all about his favorite stuffed animal, Shawn the Sheep. Martha raced home to get the toy, and as soon as David touched it all his memories came flooding back into his awareness.

The petite madeleine, from Proust’s novel In Search Of Lost Time, is a popular example of the way material things evoke lost time and speak to us via synesthesia/cross-sensory perception. When Proust sees the madeleine, nothing happens, but when he tastes the moist cake a whole complex of lost memories springs into his consciousness. Not the sight, but the taste of the cake brings him back. This crossing of perceptions is what, according to William Irwin Thompson, causes the delay-space in perception where the ego or self-sense can arise (1998: 39) . Within this cross-sensory experience, Proust also perceived what neuroscience would only recently discover: that memories evoked by olfactory cues are the most powerful because smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain’s long-term memory (Lehrer 2008: 80). Smell and taste are also the senses that are most directly connected to the material world because they take the world into the body. They can therefore trigger an archeological excavation of consciousness to recover a primary connection to origin and to materiality. Thompson even argues smell and taste are archaic senses that can take us back to the mysteries of hominization, and “the shift from estrus to menses in the new pheromonal environment that surrounds the birth of the human species itself--the evolutionary reorchestration of the sensorium in the shift from olfaction in the leaf-darkened forest of the primates to sight in the open and sun-drenched savanna of the hominids (1998: 43)." The other senses (hearing, sight, touch) are much less efficient in conjuring up our past (Lehrer: 80). 
Ian Hodder takes this idea into the excavated site of Catalhoyuk, where 9000 year-old balls of clay were found with children's teeth marks in them. He insists that the taste of the clay, like the madeleine, must have linked a Neolithic person to a particular site of memories (2011: 156).

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