top of page

The Faces of Memory

Jordi Obiols




Akira Kurosawa, in his classic film Rashomon, explores the memory of four different accounts

of a rape. Although each of the four narrators clearly saw the same events, each one’s

recollection and description of the episode is different. There are four different stories, four

different memories, four realities deriving from the same ‘reality’. The viewer

ends up concluding that it is hard to know to what extent our memories can tell us ‘what really

happened’ in any given place and time in the past. We are also prompted to reflect on the whole

notion of ‘reality’. Does anyone have a ‘better’ recollection of events? We may even ask

ourselves if ‘the event’ exists. Or are there as many events as were there observers? Are all

memories or impressions of an event equally ‘real’?

Modern psychobiology is bringing to hight the fundamentally constructive and subjective nature

of memory. This makes it susceptible to various forms of distortion and inaccuracy.

It is a naive hope and an obsolete notion to think that the memory of the past is a simple matter

of going back in time and reading the content of the scene that emerges.

Like looking at a photo album of one’s childhood. Or retrieving a file from the computer’s hard

drive. Our minds, our memories do not work in that way. Subjective reality is constantly and

necessarily reconstructed. At a very early stage in its postnatal development, the brain begins to

form new connections (synapses), thus greatly increasing its synaptic density. The growth of

dendrites in nerve cells can be compared to the growth of plants in spring. This is known as

synaptogenesis. It only lasts for a short time. Very soon after birth, the synaptic densities in

most regions of the brain reach their peak.

From then on, unused synapses begin to be pruned, eliminated, while those that are used very

frequently are strengthened. Our contact with, vision of, viewpoint on, perspective

on or experience of reality selects only a few branches of our neuronal tree from the many

possible options. Not all paths will be taken, not all potential realities will be lived, and we will

not reinforce all of our synaptic switchesor consolidate every branch of the neuronal tree. What

does this mean? That our personal world, our subjective reality is shaped by what we discard,

by what we take no notice of, by what is neutral to our attention, by what does not interest us:

that is, by All of Reality except those details do attract us, those tiny parts of Reality that we

select as relevant within our environment.

The salience of some aspect of reality — an object, a person, a face — is the state or quality by

which it stands out and is noted in our minds in relation to its surroundings.

This is a basic mental mechanism of adaptation to the environment for survival. If the roar of a

nearby lion or the sight of an enemy coming towards us did not have this salience in our minds,

we simply would not be here. A pleasant face smiling at us in the midst of a lot of neutral or less

interesting faces is also salient. Faces are a paradigm for understanding the concept of salience.

We are born with a very basic but truly impressive ability to recognize faces. At birth, the brain

is provided with some information about how a face ought to be. Within a few days of being

born a baby has learned to recognize his or her mother’s face. There are general innate

mechanisms for salience, which can thus be regarded as a perceptual/emotional phenomenon

that guides the construction of a person’s individual memory. Our emotions structure our

memory by acting as a zoom or a filter: preference is given to some memories, according to the

mood we are in at the time the event in question occurs. The memory cannot be analysed

without taking into account its links to identity. In the context of the emotional turmoil of

psychosis, delusions and hallucinations are manifestations of aberrant salience. The psychotic

mind bestows a distorted salience on neutral facets of reality to which it attaches special


For example, ‘that face is giving me a nasty look’, or ‘this newspaper article is talking about my

problem’. These would be hypersubjective, distorted readings or visions of reality. The

psychotic thus creates an idiosyncratic universe, a unique

separate reality. Physics has arrived at the startling conclusion that the matter of which we and the things around

us are composed is nothing but Emptiness, accompanied by a few all but insignificant specks of

substance in the form of electrons and other particles.

Present-day psychobiology tells us that memory is subjective, constructive. Is Reality, then, a

huge void of subjectivity enveloping scarcely perceptible corpuscles of objective ‘matter’? The

work of Begoña Egurbide and her lenticular pieces put forward a unique way of thinking about

subjectivity, about how we construct our own particular reality and our memory of it. No less

important, in my view, is her interest of by the human figure and the faces that populate her

pieces. Contemporary science has also highlighted the social nature of memory and the

construction of reality. In Egurbide’s work, the unstable nature of our vision of a changing

reality and the importance of the specific time and place of the observation bear witness to an

understanding of us as persons that is illustrated by and converges with the latest findings of

psychological science.


Jordi Obiols is a psychiatrist and professor of Psychopathology at the UAB.

bottom of page