September 9, 2010

Experiential Amnesia

Category: Academic — Biella @ 12:23 pm

So, conventional wisdom is that once you experience something first hand, it sits close to you, so that you can learn from it, think about it, and possibly invoke it. This rings true for me, except for one particular type of experience–finishing a large and complicated project—like writing a dissertation, taking PhD qualifying exams, like writing a very complicated review article. Once it is done and over with and a few months have walked away, I no longer can fathom, at all, how I even did it. It is as if I went through the experience and then amnesia set in, erasing and wiping out the fibers of events, emotions, and thoughts that went into making and finishing the project.

I find this unnerving, for various reasons. First, this di-juncture is not one I experience with other experiences, even unpleasant ones, like pain (broken collarbone, burnt hand, terrible earache), for I am able, nearly always, to shore up some shadow of those experience. More practically, when I am faced again with needing to conquer what feels unconquerable (which, unsurprisingly, is my current predicament), I have no experiential reserve to guide me. Instead, it is like I am standing at a new shore, for the first time. I tell myself,” I have done and I can do it” but there is no concomitant emotional register or memory that assures me that this is in fact true. Maybe a few more projects like these and there will be some imprint to steer me in the future but somehow I suspect my experiential amnesia will remain the same.


  1. The bad thing is you forget you did it. The good thing I’ve found is that I remember things remarkably well as soon as I get back into the project. It’s all there somewhere, it’s just gone dormant. At least that’s the only way I understand it.

    It’s definitely unnerving and I’ve noticed it in other areas of my life as well, like books I’ve read. I suppose journal-writing would help keep track of experiences but I’ve never been a journal writer.

    Comment by Bill Johnson — September 9, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

  2. According to Chuang Tzu:
    do not hanker for fame
    do not make plans
    do not try to do things
    do not try to master knowledge
    hold what is but do not hold it be be anything
    work with all that comes from heaven but do not seek to hold it
    just be empty

    Comment by just go with the flow — September 10, 2010 @ 3:38 am

  3. I have Ursula Le Guin’s translation of lao tzu sitting here next to me. Maybe time to crack it open…

    Bill: once I get into it, it is usually OK and in some cases, I really enjoy it. BUT starting, I find remarkably hard. It is akin to throwing myself into the coldest of oceans.

    Comment by Biella — September 10, 2010 @ 3:51 am

  4. I have found this to be so, so true. When I read things I have written I am surprised every time. Writing and turning in a book manuscript is really really satisfying, but so incremental it’s hard to learn from it. occasionally I have a sense-memory from preparing to write something. I remember very well gazing down the drain of the kitchen sink in my San Francisco apartment while trying to figure out how to write “Race In/For Cyberspace” when I was a graduate student. And talking to lots of people about it to see if it made any sense at all.

    Comment by lisa nakamura — September 14, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

  5. Thanks Lisa,

    Very interesting. The prep and lead time is very intense. I do remember that well. It is just the doing that you can’t grasp. I think you are totally right, though it is the fact that it is so incremental.

    Comment by Biella — September 18, 2010 @ 10:25 am

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