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