I was listening to NPR yesterday as is my afternoon commute ritual. A story aired about "symbolic intelligence," the (as far as we know) uniquely human ability to see a solitary shape and associate a flood of meanings to it. A few examples of this would be a crucifix, the American flag, and a peace sign. Many of these associated meanings are dependent upon the individual beholding the sign.
This thought process goes beyond just symbols and strays into the area of language. After all, what is writing but a symbolic representation of speech? Single words invoke any number of memories and associations from our brains' storage banks. Try the word "Christmas," or "sunshine," or even "death." Specific memories come back that help define the word through experiences. Sensations might even return, such as smells. All this within the amazing human brain that works far more like a network of computers than we even realized.
This set me on a tangent. I know, I know, I'll give you all a moment or two to recover from the shock.
How often have not just words and symbols been associative to me, but day-to-day objects as well? I very often associate entire segments of my life (such as it is) with seemingly inane things. In looking around the house last night, I found a number of examples of this.
I recently bought a used copy of Whitley Streiber's Communion. This will always remind me of 1987 when I first read the book in high school. My friend Brad and I really took off with that alien abduction meme and invented all kinds of naive and sophomoric sketches around it. I can feel the hard chairs of the computer lab we would sit in and hatch these plots and schemes.
My copy of Les Miserables takes me back to November, 1988. I was a senior in high school and secretly beginning to believe I was destined to be a writer, even though it would take another 15 years for me to fully come to grips with it. This book was required reading in English class. It really got me thinking about character, plot, diction, and how human beings must often endure the most deplorable of conditions solely due to the greed of someone else. Good thing that was way back in the 18th Century, right? Uh-huh. I can smell the greasy fast food I would consume without remorse during lunch that senior year.
The album Green by REM takes me directly to August 17th, 1989. My first night on campus in college. Aside from crying my eyes out in fear of the transition, I remember this album playing on the stereo of a guy I met and later became friends with. I had heard of REM and liked the songs I'd been exposed to on the radio, but this was the first time I listened to an entire record. Even though I was a metalhead, I was secretly sold. REM would develop into a favorite of mine. I can feel the heat of Indiana in August and hear the sound of a fan despondently trying to keep the flies at bay with kamikaze winds.
Next to Green I have REM's Monster. This takes me to winter of 1995 and my girlfriend at the time. I can taste the ranch dip her parents kept in the fridge for snacking. Then I push all of these thoughts out of my mind as quickly as they came. I still like the record, though.
I've got a copy of The Prisoner graphic novel that DC did long ago. I'm in 1992 at that point. Again it's summer and I'm in my room at my parents' house with Ghost Dogg and Dreamer. Ghosty has an rpg version of The Prisoner and I'm playing a character who really shouldn't be involved with espionage on any level. Dreamer is playing a crotchety writer who doesn't know how to drive...and I keep giving him the wheel. Oh the endless cackles. Amazing the hilarious time three dorks can have in one room with nothing but their imaginations and a pair of dice.
There are any number of other examples I have of these kinds of mnemonic functions. The human brain and the connections that it makes. It will never cease to amaze me.
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