Saturday, May 30, 2009

Madhavikkutty RIP

The charm of growing up in the Kerala of eighties, besides the balmy summer vacations and monsoons were the voices of a few writers. They spoke on the pages of Mathrubhumi magazine which the newspaper boy threw every week at the gate.

That was a long time ago.

Basheer was gone. Vijayan left a while ago. Now its Kamala Das's turn.

Madhavikkutty, as she is known to her malayalam readers, tormented them in more ways than they could've bargained for. She was loved when she was not hated.

The charm too is gone!

P.S: An article on Madhavikkutty, written a while ago.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Movie Memorabilia...

Thanks to some of the recent movies, much of the talk of late has been around memory and its functioning. So I thought that I'll just jot down a few points about memory to help understand both memory as such and the movies better.

Firstly memory is a function of the mind. It is multidimensional and dependent on time space and matter. Since these dimensions are always in a constant flux, memory becomes a complex dynamic process rather than a quantifiable constant. It can be best imagined as a constantly changing graph or a curve (something akin a screensaver) inside a cube whose co-ordinates are time, space and matter along the three axes.As we all know, everyday we form and lose a lot of memory. 

This is basically governed by three sub-processes: 

a. Encoding – information input in terms of sensations.
b. Storage – processing this information and its maintenance over a period of time.
c. Retrieval – accessing and using this information in the future.

Based on these fundamental functions the mind constructs its own reality of the world, subject on what it chooses to remember and what it doesn't. Therefore we all remember and recall things differently, though we undergo the same experience. (Say the taste of a particular dessert.)

Types of Memory: Memory is a formless, shapeless fluid entity but for the purpose of convenience it is broadly classified into Short Term and Long Term Memories.

Short Term Memory is measured in terms of seconds. eg Remembering what attire the actor wore in the previous shot in a movie, or recalling the last sentence of the book you are reading. It is the most active of all the memory processes which means it is almost always switched 'on' throughout the consciousness. However, since the resources of the Short Term Memory are finite, the information within is quickly lost as it is replaced by newer information. Imagine an overflowing bath.(One can remember what we had lunch yesterday but not a week before). Therefore, Short Term Memory is just a conduit through which more complex, central, Longer Term Memory processes operate.

Long Term Memory is measurable in days, months, years. Imaginably it is far more complicated and stable. Again, it is broadly divided into :Declarative Memory and Non-Declarative Memory. 

As already mentioned memory is a continual process, hence these divisions are merely arbitrary. There is considerable overlap in the actual process of storing and recalling.

Non Declarative Memory is a collective term for all the memory processes that involves non conscious learning. This includes skills, intuitions and abilities. Again the three main sub-groups here include -

1. Procedural Memory - is the memory of perceptual skills and procedures. eg: Driving a car. One does not need to be aware of the elements and the sequence involved in driving a car (like ignition, gears, accelerator etc ) one simply can remember to drive a car!! (often misused word - automatically). The same applies to playing instruments, swimming etc.

2. Conditioned Memory - is based on Pavlovian theory where the mind 'learns' a certain aspect of the memory from experience. For instance accents- an Englishman who has moved to Australia will develop the ozzie twang 'without any active effort because it is just natural to pick up an accent'.And since conditioned memory is learnt, it can also be unlearnt- so if he goes back to England he might lose his twang without any effort.

3. Priming: Here the mind becomes increasingly efficient in identifying set patterns of memories through past experience. Say, recognising a particular singer on a radio or the voice of a friend on a telephone etc.

Next category is the Declarative Memory: This is the lay man's understanding of memory ie the memory involved in remembering and recalling information – facts, figures, events etc.Broadly subdivided into two groups Episodic Memory and Semantic Memory:

Episodic Memory is the most spatial and conscious of all the memory processes. Basically it is the memory of the events based on episodes - like - What did you do this Weekend? It is personal and hence open to be biased and interpreted. It also includes other shared memories like – US Elections, Cold war etc. 

Some other notable subtypes here include a. Autobiographical memory: Significant events that happened in your life: Like where did you meet your wife? (a la Harry met Sally) In earlier days, the answers were charming- Salsa class, A local pub down the road, a protest march or even in the middle of a world war, but these days it seems mostly, well, a club or online. Facebook ?

Some other forms of Episodic Memory act as a bridge between personal/autobiographical events and more impersonal shared episodic events. These memories are called b. Flashbulb memories. eg a generation before it used be.. What were you doing when JFK was shot? Or even going back another generation – Where were you during the blitz ? But in our generation, it seems - Where the hell were you doing when Salma Hayek had a malfunction LOL :-P ? No ! just kidding; where were you when The Twin Towers collapsed?
Me? Well right in front of television!

The other type of Declarative Memory is the standard Semantic Memory which is the memory of information. Say, what is the capital of Russia? Or spell the name of the current Iranian president. (Ha ha! buggers, I'm sure you'll get it wrong, so look it up)

That's a basic overview of the memory and types. Let's consider a day to day event and see how the various types of memories work together:Your friend Adam calls you saying that he is in town on a business visit. You recognise his voice immediately (priming). You exchange pleasantries and recall that it had been a while since you last saw each other a few months back in a party (episodic). You suggest meeting up for lunch in a local pub. You drive there (procedural) without worrying about the directions as you have been there many times before (conditioning). During the lunch, he tells you in detail the football match he had been to (autobiographical).So a quick few minutes in a routine life involves a complex interplay of many types of memory functions.

Finally, a quick word about forgetting: As said before, memory entails encoding, storage and retrieval. If there is an impairment in any one of these functions, forgetting is hastened. Often the impairment is a result of an injury to the part of the brain involved with that specific function. Such forgetting or if you are into Greek Amnesia, is divided into three subtypes again:

Retrograde – you can't remember anything that happened before the event. Episodic memories may be lost but usually the more fundamental Non Declarative Memory is preserved.

Post Traumatic - After a trauma/injury there is usually a time period where the person is fuzzy about things. She might not remember for a while but eventually the memories 'come back'. This amnesia may extend from minutes to months, and very rarely even years.

Anterograde - In this condition there is impairment with the laying down of new layers of memory while the memories before the event are intact.


With that understanding I guess it's easier to figure out the complexities of both Memento and Bourne.

Jason Bourne had a trauma which basically resulted in two types of forgetfulness:

a. Post traumatic amnesia – He does not remember how he ended up on the boat in the Mediterranean, or how those Italian boatmen saved him. (Bourne Identity) This presumably only lasted a few days.

b. Retrograde amnesia – He lost his declarative autobiographical memory ie no identity, no retained past ( therefore not able to remember who he is/was, what he did etc) but his Non Declarative Memory as often in such cases, was intact. ( He could drive effortlessly, dismantle a sub-machine gun, remember his CIA training in espionage etc) . Further, his Semantic Memory was also intact. (He could remember that Berlin is the capital of Germany and Francs was the currency of France). 

But notably He did not suffer any anterograde memory loss – which is the ability to form new memories after the trauma is intact, so he was able to remember everything that happened after but nothing before the event.


Lenny's case in Memento is a bit complex. After the trauma he has:

a. Post Traumatic Amnesia: A small duration of time when he has lost all his memories following the trauma. As I have said before, it is fairly routine for someone to lose consciousness, and with that memory after a head injury. It usually takes a bit of time to orientate himself ( the usual.. Where am I ? ..question in Hollywood). The movie doesn't focus much on this amnesia and understandably so as it is not important.

b. Retrograde amnesia: Once Lenny is conscious he is shown not to suffer from any form Retrograde amnesia – so he is able remember in detail about himself, his wife, his life before the event etc ( Declarative episodic intact)

c. But Lenny's major problem is anterograde amnesia which makes him unable to lay down newer memories after the event. He is able to encode his life experiences as memories but he cant retrieve the memories, as they are stored unlinked to each other. Therefore Lenny's reality is broken down into discrete segments of experiences of 20 mins each, which he simply cant relate to each another. After every few minutes he is unable to remember the people around him or what they do. Unlike for us, where the world moves in forward time, for Lenny it moves in a circle. So being Lenny is like being trapped in a maelstrom without an end. But the viewer who is watching the movie moves in a linear time. It is here one can appreciate the genius of Nolan; the beauty of Memento is in its narration where it presents discrete fragmented perception of time ( for Lenny) in a linear time for the viewer. This is achieved by retro-narration ( story moves forwards to backwards), which I personally think is a marvel of a story telling. 


I hope that makes things clearer.