Memory and Imagination
Updated: May 28
A Postscript to “Can Machines Create?”
The ancients knew that imagination depends on memory. That’s why Mnemosyne was the mother of the Muses. And while they would expect that training one’s memory was geared toward the most comprehensive memory possible, the mental treasury was never meant to be a cluttered garage, an overstuffed closet of heterogeneous stuff. Memory was, even if impressively ample, always selective: it only held the best, or at least the holder’s idea of the best.
By one standard, that kind of memory is limited. Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story translated as “Funes the Memorious,” imagines a person with an infinite capacity to remember everything. And this is, as you can imagine, more of a curse than a blessing. But any less for a computer would be considered a bug, not a feature.
So, an argument can be made that what distinguishes human invention from computer creativity is what’s missing, our lacunae. Our memories are limited, and composed of related things we have deliberately collected. Since neuroscientists understand the creative process as fundamentally associative, a connecting of the dots, the creative person sees connections others don’t see. Which implies a kind of fuzzy memory, a hazy image that facilities seeing similarities between disparate things. Our memory’s limitations and imprecision facilitate creativity.
Of course, I’m using the word creativity the way it is understood today, but I endorse the idea that actual creativity means making something out of nothing, which means something only a deity can do. Nothing comes from nothing, as Maria says in The Sound of Music. Invention is a better word for what we do, and what the computer mimics.
But if the above is true, then what distinguishes us, the relative weakness of our memory, is actually our strength. Michelangelo’s strength, and Mozart’s too, even if both had prodigious memories. And there is no way to program that into a computer, because it can’t be randomized, and is not a process of editing, but of selection. A selection shaped not by input, but by experience, history, pain and suffering, joy and friendship. That’s not an app or an algorithm, that’s life.