Bondi Beach, Sydney, NSW c. 2002

Tue, 28 Mar 2006 7:27 AM (GMT+0000)

There is only one kind of memory we can still believe: the kind recorded by our sense of smell. All the rest can be artificial, deceptive, diaphanous to near invisibility, or fleetingly transient. Sadly it has nothing to do with the way we're wired; it's purely a matter of technology. Incidentally, I wonder how much longer memory month is going to last, and if it will ever go to sudden death.

Clearly sight can't be trusted. Eyewitness testimony is patently unreliable. Even with a semi-photographic memory, details are blurred, skewed, and translated to a new perspective. We all take a little artistic license, especially with the good snapshots, the panoramics. The mind's eye can be tricked into believing an image on a screen or on the printed page is the real thing. To visit Chrissy Field, all we have to do is find a library or an open access point. The only way we'll ever prove that our visual cortexes have been misstimulated is if we take them down to the beach for show and tell.

Touch is fickle. We can usually imagine most sensations, like the soft fur of a dog's ear, the constellation of touch spooned sleepily on a Sunday, and the lancing burn of hot tea down the throat. We can remember feelings, but we can't compare them to the past. They only exist for the split second they race from nerve endings up the spinal cord speedway, and for that moment they drown out the voice of any stored ancestors. We can only try to hold the sustain pedal to keep them alive. We can't just close our nerves the way we close our eyes and make them register a touch or the butterflies the way we can render the face that they belong with.

Sound is the easiest to fake. In the darkness - if the recording or transmission is clear enough - we can almost be dancing in the seediest club in Cabo San Lucas, walking along the surf, or lying in bed joined by the light threads of each others' voices though separated by thousands of miles. Almost. They will all be missing the key elements: the soup of perfume, cologne, and body odor; low-grade beef frying with onions; sea salt, sand, and sewage; soap and shampoo; sweaty, sticky sex smells and clean sheets.

We can't conjure smell onto our taste buds and olfactory organs, either. We're only just beginning to isolate the esters responsible. We can brew them in vats in New Jersey, but we can't send them over the wire or code them into any patterns other than the molecular. We can't yet understand why smells can trigger a million other memories at the same time, instantaneously. We can fake a banana, but we can't even describe the subtle, intertwining mix of pheremones that float in the air around and nestle in the hair of our favorite infatuation.

I'm glad. It's the last thing that separates us from a world where our lives are copied and distributed wholesale. We can still record only sight and sound, not a complete thought or a complete experience. The vividness of our smell triggers hasn't been attenuated the way our other senses are now filtered against the Times Square assault of imagery and cacophonous city orchestra. If we have to start using the damper to stem the onslaught of a reeking, indistinguishable tide, will we lose all the memories that we used to have attached?


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