Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, The Forgetting Machine: Memory, Perception, and the Jennifer Aniston Neuron (Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, Inc., 2017) 170 pp. $14.95 Pb. ISBN: 9781944648541
Quiroga begins his exploration of memory by relating a key scene from the film Bladerunner (1982) which posits a world with synthetic humans, known as replicants. They are gifted with memories in order to feel more human, despite their use as mere tools for humanity. We are taken back to the death scene of Roy Batty, a rogue replicant, as he recounts the memories that flicker in his head. All of those lost memories, we lament. It prompts us to think about how our memories also might be lost one day and what that means. This fictional example situates us in the right frame of mind to consider these questions – just distant enough to be critical, but still close enough that we understand its impact. It is not long before the question arises of how significantthe role of memory is in constituting identity. How much of ourselves are tied to our memories? Think, says Quiroga, about how we talk about those with Alzheimer’s. They’re ‘no longer there’ or ‘not himself anymore’ (4). This is how the book is structured, mapping out a framework of how the brain makes us who we are.
The first few chapters, divided neatly into headings such as ‘How Much Do We See?’ and ‘How Much Do We Remember?’ outline the various processes that go on in order for us to conceive of the reality that is before us. These different approaches to perception are woven together to show a view of how we understand the world. One of the most intriguing things Quiroga reminds us of is that the ‘brain generates a reality and a past that makes us who we are’ (17).This is because we see more information than we can process, and we witness more moments than we can store. So, the brain selects what is necessary and creates ourselves from that, with each choice altering what our brain will select for keeping in the future. Seeing and remembering run parallel here; with all the information available, the brain uses similar strategies for both by way of grasping information it deems relevant and discarding the rest. It is the construction of meaning that underlies these processes, determining relevance. That we see the world differently or select different things is known. However, Quiroga renews the fascination we have with our differences through a laying bare of the processes that determine them.
The oft-mentioned example (within the field of memory studies particularly) of Marcel Proust’s Madeleine emerges, and we may discern that Quiroga leans toward thinking about the literary through his other texts such as Borges and Memory (2012). By situating the discussions of the biological processes of the brain alongside philosophical and literary texts, Quiroga adds cultural weight to the understanding of them. When seen in the abstract, we cannot sometimes recognise their impact. Reading through the processes our brains undergo give us the details, the blueprints for the functionality of ourselves. Applying it in such a way may not fully address how it helps us understand. We may understand something in the abstract,but it is not until it is applied in a relevant way that we can situate its importance. The positioning of Proust and Jorge Luis Borges (and indeed, Bladerunner) amidst the explanatory models give us another way to approach the workings of memory. That literature and memory are so intertwined is inevitable; writing, which Aristotle worried would impair the memory of his fellow men, has enabled us to richly recall (and modify) those parts of ourselves that we want to show to the world. Like writing, memory is creative: Quiroga notes an argument from Frederic Bartlett that memory is a creative process that reinforces a schema. We can manipulate our memories, unwittingly, and our memories can be manipulated. What is at the core of how the brain processes the world is the construction of a ‘meaningful reality’ (58) - what this meaning arises from will necessarily be different from person to person. Quiroga’s establishing of memory and ultimately, being, as a creative process adds a poetic sheen to the scientific examination of it.
Along the way, Quiroga also explores the history of memory – citing mnemonics, oratory and the introduction of writing, up to the modern era with our technology capable of holding vast amounts of memory. That he compares the size of the brain and the information it processes in technological terms is telling. Technology has become the standard identifier for measuring capacity against. By creating AI, we have another measurement to compare ourselves to, a standard whole. But the human brain is wired differently, and our neurons fire for different things – different concepts in particular, such as the Jennifer Aniston neuron which this book briefly explores towards its conclusion. Essentially, this particular neuron is one that responds to a concept (and was noticed by the author after particular responses to photos of Aniston). We still have a long way to go with understanding the complexities of memory, but discoveries such as our ability to link episodic memories and concepts together through certain neurons allows us to get a firmer grasp of our elusive minds.
The final chapter returns to a theme established at the beginning of the book, exploring who we are and whether androids can feel. In order to explore these questions, Quiroga outlines some philosophical problems that touch upon these issues such as the ‘Zombie of the Philosophers’ and the ‘Chinese room’. The former posits a being that appears human but lacks conscious experience or sentience, and as such should not be thought of as human. The latter centres on a machine fed instructions on how to speak Chinese – if it can follow instructions on how to use the language, can it be said to understand it? Both of these problems offer a way of thinking about the AI that is continuously being developed and how we might conceive of their experience. Does the appearance of both understanding and humanity constitute a human being? It is an important matter to contend with and addressing it alongside an exploration of the human mind suggests we might operate in a posthumanist mode going forward. By establishing some of the ways in which the brain situates and processes reality, Quiroga gives us a basis from which to look at how we view the world. Along the way he examines these fundamental processes and why we need to forget, discard,and move on – ultimately highlighting that we shape ourselves by what we choose to focus on and select. The book highlights the centrality of memory to the human identity and experience and, in doing so, considers how we might conceive both ourselves and AI that purports to be like us. Like the replicants of Bladerunner,we cling to our memories in order to understand who we are. Quiroga complicates the biological understanding of how our minds work by comparison with similar processes in AI, thereby stimulating new ways to view who we are. But we end by being safely grounded in an understanding of what defines us. It is our limitations, he says, that are ‘the cornerstone of what makes us human’ (156).
Christina Wilkins, University of Winchester