Drawn from memory

Colter Jacobsen, a Californian artist living in San Francisco, has an engaging way of combining scientific curiosity with artistic insight. The collusion of art and science gives his work an edge, leaving the viewer with the feeling that further reflection will always reveal more.

Jacobsen has explored memory in several of his projects. In one project he asked subjects to think about the last time they were at the ocean. Immediately after posing the question he took a photo of them.

Later he created drawings based on the photos so that he could explore patterns in how the subjects glanced around while they were searching for the memory.

Another series of projects has been based on what he calls memory drawings, a collection of which recently appeared in Esopus Magazine's sixth volume along with wonderfully eclectic contributions from writers, artists, musicians, and even John Conway, the mathematician who is perhaps best known for his pioneering investigations into so-called artificial life.

Memory drawing dyad of Swabbies

To create a memory drawing, Jacobsen starts by drawing an accurate, detailed facsimile of a photograph. This drawing is a "clone" drawing, essentially a "verbatim" copy of the photo. He then puts away both the photo and the clone drawing.

Several days or even weeks later, he draws the photo again, but this time he draws it completely from memory. He customarily hangs the memory drawings side by side, with the clone drawing presented on the left and the remembered drawing on the right.

Jacobsen often uses randomly found materials in his projects. Swabbies, shown here, was drawn on the back of loose scraps of music manuscript.

Detail of "clone" drawing

A science-minded viewer might recognize that the memory drawings are like an experiment. The clone drawing works something like an experimental control. Rather than comparing the photograph to a drawing, the viewer compares one drawing to another drawing.

Any artifacts of the drawing process, such as systematic spatial or perceptual transformations, or anomalies in eye-to-hand rendering, can be factored out because the clone is also a drawing. As a result, the differences between the drawings are largely attributable to the effects of memory. Taken as a dyad, the drawings offer a window onto the landscape of human memory.

The memory drawing technique arose from Jacobsen's extensive contemplation of the phenomenon of twins in nature. What's interesting about "twinness" is not how twins are the same, but the subtle ways that they differ. Part of what makes the memory drawings intriguing is the differences due to memory.

Most of Jacobsen's memory drawings have been based on photographs given to him by friends. Swabbies started its life as a photograph given by Devendra Banhart, a long-term friend, also an artist but better known as a musician.

Had the photograph not been a gift from Jacobsen's friend, we might wonder whether he would have chosen to work with a photograph that is so challenging to remember. Remembering so much detail would be difficult even with a photographic, or eidetic, memory. In the case of Swabbies, the image "fermented" in the artist's memory for over a week.

A science-minded viewer might recognize that the memory drawings are like an experiment. The clone drawing works something like an experimental control.

Jacobsen's memory drawings evoke a sense of both remembrance and dreaming. Intent, meaning, and mood thrust themselves into the foreground while the concrete details of phenomenal reality withdraw from the center of attention.

A remembrance is intriguingly similar to a dream. In both cases we see without looking. Memories and dreams can feel very similar, especially old memories of distant places, which may even have the same haunting distortions that dreams often have.

Interestingly, remembering a dream is easy compared to remembering yourself having a remembrance. To demonstrate that point, try remembering an experience by picturing it in your mind. A few moments later, try remembering yourself as you were when you were remembering the experience.

You'll probably end up remembering the experience itself, rather than remembering yourself remembering the experience. The extra frame somehow gets lost.

Many people report experiencing dreams that recur, sometimes even rejoining a dream after several years have elapsed. In that sense, they are remembering a dream while dreaming.

What does seem especially rare, however, is to have a dream of falling asleep and then having a dream within the dream. Again, the extra frame gets lost.

Detail of "remembered" drawing

The lost frame in both cases seems to imply that memory stores the subjective experience itself, rather than a recording of the sense data on which the experience is based. When we remember something, we play back the experience we had when watching life's movie, rather than watching the movie itself over again.

What makes human memory remarkable is that rather than storing an image in memory, as for example a computer might do, human memory stores the experience of seeing that image. Human memory stores meaning, not data. It is emphatically not a video recorder or a computer hard disk made of meat. And yet, it's hard to imagine how meaning or human experience could be held physically in a memory.

Meaning is made of patterns that connect by spanning across multiple kinds of experience. When patterns connect, they create consistency in changing contexts. You can recognize a friend's face from many angles and in many kinds of light. You can even recognize your friend's face in a cartoon or caricature, as long as the cartoon captures the distinctive patterns, or meaning, in your friend's face.

The stream of signals coming into the mind from the sense organs are jumbled and vague. Memory depends on the fact that the mind sends signals to the muscles to move the body and interact with the world almost continuously (even when the eye is supposedly still, it is still moving with slight jumps or saccades).

The effects of those movements loop back to the mind through the sense organs and perceptions. Memory listens to both ends of that feedback loop, and uses it to find consistencies, or connecting patterns, in the signals coming from the senses.

Because of that, without a body there can be no meaning in memory. Not only are memories tied to the body, they are tied to a particular body: yours. If someone else's memories were somehow transplanted into your brain, those memories would be a completely incomprehensibly stream of signals.

That also means that humans can only comprehend what can be measured with a human body. Ultimately all abstraction must boil down to a metaphor of the body in the physical world.

Human memory stores meaning, not data. It is emphatically not a video recorder or a computer hard disk made of meat.

Memory is alive. As sensations flow into the mind from the sense organs, the mind actively responds by trying to fit those sensations to wholes that have been created out of tiny bits of past experience.

The wholes are themselves connections made previously between other wholes. The wholes are like packages, but they are packages that only contain other packages.

As the mind experiences the flow of sensations, it feels how the sensations taken together are like sensations that have been experienced before.

The ways that the sensations differ are what get added together to make a new whole. The mind compares impressions, or how sensations seem, and not what characteristics those sensations may have as data. What gets stored in memory is the mind's response to the novel differences among the wholes.

Memory helps the mind make sense of the world by weaving a web of meaningful stories out of diverse sensations. By remembering meaning instead of a "recording" of the sensations themselves, the mind can use small bits of impression to create a perception of a whole, without needing to examine all the data making up the whole as a computer would have to do.

Memory replays prior experiences and the mind fills in the missing pieces. As you listen to a familiar song, you're also listening to it with your memory. Your mind can't stop itself from replaying the song in memory at the same time that you listen to it out loud. If the song deviates from what you remember, you detect the differences.

Sincerely, Louise

Sensations never exactly fit previous experience because no two experiences are ever precisely the same. Experiences are connected in memory not by category, but by subjective feelings that are the responses to sensations. A new sensation will connect to the memories that provoke subjective feelings that are similar to what this sensation provokes.

Human memory abides in the fluid spaces between categories. It relives bits of remembered sensations that provoke feelings that are like those of the presently occurring sensations, and ties them together to give birth to a stream of new perceptions. In that way, perception is drawn from memory.

Some sensations come only from memory itself rather than from sense organs. The mind eagerly responds to those internal sensations by creating the strange but self-consistent stories that we call dreams. Dreams are drawn from memory like yarn pulled from a knitted shawl.

A fascinating aspect of Jacobsen's drawings is that they vividly demonstrate how memories come from meaning. The drawings are more than a recapitulation of the images. They are an active reliving of the experience of drawing the images.

The difference is significant, because it cuts to the heart of consciousness itself. The artist is responding to his subjective sense of what it is like to move the pencil against the paper and to feel the subtle impact of the flavors and ineffable stories latent within the image.

Jacobsen's drawings illustrate how remembering, perceiving, and dreaming are all made of the same mysterious stuff, which is subjectivity.

By contemplating these drawings we catch an oblique glimpse of how consciousness draws from memory, and also of how surprising it is that the living matter of the brain can perceive its own existence subjectively.

Michael Webb, February 2007

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