Subjective Experience of Memory

Last week I went to the Royal Institution (, a fancy place with a great lecture theatre, in which I heard my Cambridge friend Jon Simons talk about ‘The Subjective Experience of Remembering’ (abstract here). You can find out about his lab’s work on their site, and I discussed one strand (reality monitoring) in a post last September.
      As well as drawing on (and demonstrating) experiments, Jon also turned to philosophy and literature as contributors to the conversation. Not surprisingly I very much welcomed the thought that when it comes to subjective experiences, difficult things to reach and pin down, there are diverse routes to greater understanding. One of the passages he cited came from Wordsworth’s Prelude. It was presented as an example of one of the phenomena of the subjective experience of memory, the first-person perspective, the way that we re-inhabit past events as we reconstruct them in our minds:

Oh! many a time have I, a five years’ Child,
A naked Boy, in one delightful ,
A little sever’d from his stream,
Made one long bathing of a summer’s day,
Bask’d in the sun, and plunged, and bask’d again
Alternate all a summer’s day, or cours’d
Over the sandy fields, leaping through groves
Of yellow , or when crag and hill,
The woods, and distant Skiddaw’s lofty height,
Were bronz’d with a deep radiance, stood alone
Beneath the sky, as if I had been born
On Indian Plains, and from my Mother’s hut
Had run abroad in wantonness, to sport,
A naked Savage, in the thunder shower.

I have been thinking about the contribution of the details here — to the depiction of this scene, and to the things it has to say about how remembering works. That ‘Oh!’, for example: is Wordsworth trying to share an idea about how vivid reconstructions of past events have some sort of striking entry-point — not necessarily a Proustian cue, more a kind of threshold-marker?
      I’m particularly intrigued by the ‘as if’ construction of last four lines. (Understandably, Jon quoted only as far as ‘grunsel’; fair enough, he had a lot of ground to cover.) Is this a bit of poetic elaboration, a bit of reflection, and thus not really part of the memory? Or perhaps poetry’s appetite (need) for comparisons reflects in this case memory’s appetite (need) for making connections and analogies. This is one way that people might express and acknowledge what the remembered past ‘was like’, a potentially important interplay between qualitative and comparative. It may also be a sort of scaffolding, or some extra sensory information, something supplied to fill out the details into a properly vivid reconstruction.
      This is a great, great topic, and I am looking forward to talking more to Jon about it.

i.e. a stream
i.e. a side-channel of a stream used to turn a water-mill
i.e. a plant not unlike a daisy
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

2 thoughts on “Subjective Experience of Memory

  1. simon

    on the button, as always…. I’m not teaching much this year but was teaching The Prelude a couple of weeks ago – a passage when Wordsworth seems to be speaking quite confidently about pre-linguistic memories, another kind of ‘as if’ – ‘If I _could_ remember it, it would be like this….’

    1. Raphael Post author

      This bit?

      For this, didst thou,
      O Derwent! winding among grassy holms
      Where I was looking on, a babe in arms,
      Make ceaseless music that composed my thoughts
      To more than infant softness, giving me
      Amid the fretful dwellings of mankind
      A foretaste, a dim earnest, of the calm
      That Nature breathes among the hills and groves?

      — thanks for suggesting this. On the one hand… this might show us that poets make things up. On the other hand… it might make us think about the ways in which memories are often composed, partly at least, from ‘as if’ reconstruction, and we all make things up, all the time.


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