The Persistent Impermanence of Memory

denhalter-face2By Scot Denhalter

Sculptures by Lia Hadley


The traditional model for human memory pictured the mind as something like a filing cabinet or an internal disk drive. To remember was akin to retrieving a stored file, a record of a past experience. To forget was merely to misplace a file or find its code corrupted.

But today, neuroscience provides a molecular explanation of human memory that overturns all traditional psychological models of remembering and forgetting, describing memory instead as a sequence of proteins strung along a neuron much like the beads of a necklace. Unfortunately, in the act of remembering, this concatenation is added to, subtracted from, rearranged, or completely unstrung.

These scientists are not speaking about memory dulled or erased by the passage of time; they are saying that when we retrieve a memory, we alter its content. They are saying that every remembering is also a forgetting.

This happens because as the mind retrieves the raw data of memory for the first time, details needed to establish the logical coherence of the memory’s retelling—details not originally stored or possibly never perceived—can be unconsciously added, while seemingly unnecessary details can be left out and likely lost forever. It will be this slightly altered reconstruction that will be stored again in the brain for future retrieval, not the original memory. And with each new remembering, the story is further and more deeply changed.

The numerals on the enameled watch face transmogrify to ants that wander off the watch, meandering across the table toward the entropic smoothness of the sea’s distant horizon.

This makes the personal stories we tell most often the least reliable. And I have told no story more often, I think, than that of my experience with don Pedro and the missing man.


The missing man was one of three passengers with whom I had been traveling—all of us crowded into a colectivo driven from Chiclayo to Piura. I was heading to a new assignment in the Peru-North Andes Mission. I never knew my fellow passengers’ reasons for the trip.

At a provincial border about one hundred kilometers in, we were stopped by the Guardia Civil, the Peruvian national police, to have our documents checked. During that break in the drive, we all got out to stretch our legs and relieve ourselves. With our papers verified and returned to the driver, we all climbed back into the vehicle. No one but I noticed the man was missing—or, at least, no one else remarked upon it. Instead, the driver and what remained of my fellow passengers seemed impatient with me, annoyed by my getting back out of the car to look for him.

It was not a difficult search. Only two small structures stood within sight, one opposite the other, on either side of the Pan-American Highway running like a black ribbon through the flat, taupe expanse of the Peruvian-Atacama desert.

I looked first behind the roadside shelter—a three-sided structure supporting a slumping roof under which people could crouch for shade. It was made of woven reed mats, sticks, and dried corn stalks wired together. Open to the highway, it allowed occupants a westerly view of the desert and of its imagined reach toward, realization of, and inevitable submission to the great Pacific. There was no one inside. I had seen that clearly when I first got back out of the car. Nor was there anyone behind it; just the line of wet spots in the sand where we had all relieved ourselves immediately upon arrival, standing side by side behind the shelter, urinating, some farting, and all sighing blissfully.

On the west side of the highway stood the check-point station, manned by the two officers who had checked our papers. It was a large, box-like structure constructed of plywood painted white, and it sat a little less than a meter above the ground on four cinderblock pedestals. The plywood panel on the highway side of the station served as its only window. Hinged at the top, it could be raised to give the officers a clear view of the highway and the three-sided shelter opposite. Perhaps it also served to capture the rare breeze. From the road, I looked beneath the kiosk and could clearly see that no one stood behind it, but from that same vantage point, only the officer’s heads and shoulders were visible above the lower edge of their window.

I crossed the highway to the station’s door, accessed by means of three wooden steps. I peered in briefly. The floor was about to my waist, and no one lay upon it handcuffed. One of the officers was filling out a report of some kind. He spoke to me, asking what I needed. I told him I was looking for one of the passengers. Neither officer looked out the window to the vehicle waiting for me on the highway. The one furthest from me went back to his report. The one nearest me regarded me without curiosity. He was heavy and sweating, still wearing his cap.

Tal vez ha vuelto, mientras.” he said.

But the man had not returned to the car while I was away, and upon scrambling back inside, I found my driver surly and my fellow passengers silent. This was a complete reversal of their behavior when we had all boarded in Chiclayo.


denhalter-face4Having never been, for the last eight months, without the nearby presence of another missionary, I had felt some unease with the prospect of riding over 200 kilometers alone with four strangers. But the other three passengers and the driver were delighted to be riding with a gringo who spoke Spanish. They had asked me where I was from and what I was doing in their country. They had poked good-natured fun at me, accusing me of working for the CIA, and had laughed when I returned it in kind, telling them to speak up because the mic in my tie wasn’t picking them up clearly. I had regaled them with self-deprecating stories of the social gaffs I had committed since arriving in Peru due to my ignorance of both the language and the culture. I told them of the several insults I had unintentionally given and accepted. Thereupon, my fellow passengers had taken an earnest pleasure in teaching me the kind of Spanish I would never learn from a textbook.

But after leaving the checkpoint, they were no longer chatty. We drove in silence. My question as to where they thought the other fellow might have gone was left unanswered. The man who had occupied the middle of the back seat on the first leg of our journey hugged the door opposite me and closed his eyes as if to sleep. I considered for a moment the empty spot on the bench seat between us and then gazed out my window over the desert. To the Andean foothills in the east or to the Pacific in the west, it was a yawning plain of sand and gravel. What little vegetation grew there was sparse and clung despondently close to the ground. On our journey, we had occasionally driven through a small pueblito—a handful of mud and stick dwellings supported by a single well. Occasionally such a village could be seen at some distance from the road. But at this provincial border check, there was nothing within five hundred meters on either side of the highway behind which someone could hide himself or, I thought abruptly and inexplicably, hide someone else.

Without preamble, the car began to slow. I looked out the windshield at the road. A few hundred meters ahead, a man stood motionless at the edge of the highway. The stranger made no attempt to wave us down, but it seemed the driver intended to pull over and pick him up. As we drew near, I could see he was a cholo, wearing what might have been an indigenous costume. His pants were blousy, made of a rough weave of geometric patterns in a riot of colors dimmed by the clinging desert soil. A poncho sporting vertical stripes in a multitude of colors—quite unlike the fawn drab of alpaca wool typically worn by the cholos in the region—was draped across his shoulders, but it too was dulled by the grime of years. On his feet he wore a dusty pair of yanquis. And pulled tightly down upon his head was what looked like a broad-brimmed, Mexican sombrero of tattered red velvet trimmed in black.

As our vehicle came to a halt in front of the man, my back seat companion opened his door, got out, and held the door for the stranger who moved to climb into the car. But upon seeing me, he paused with one knee on the bench seat and stared at me—directly and unstintingly—for so extended a time that I was compelled to look away. I felt him mount the seat beside me, his proximity accompanied by the worst body odor I had ever smelled—a mixture of feces and rotting flesh, the alchemy of shit and death. The car began to move again, and I turned to see that the stranger was still staring at me, dust and grime streaking his dark face, his sombrero still pulled down upon his brow. Rising to the challenge, I stared back.

The contest did not last a minute. Gagging at the stranger’s stench, I broke my gaze, rolled down my window as far as it would go (only halfway), and pressed my face to the opening for whatever fresh air I could pull into my lungs—no matter that it felt like the vented air of a blast furnace. When I next stole a glance at the man, he was staring straight ahead, his hands hidden under his poncho. He maintained this pose for the rest of our journey.

We rode like this, still and silent, for over two hours until, again without prelude, the driver slowed the car and pulled over. We were still several kilometers from the city, but without a word being spoken, the passenger on the far side of the back seat again opened his door got out, holding the door for the stranger. Upon exiting, the man walked without hesitation into the desert. There was nothing around—no dwellings that he might walk to. His was a direct path into the somber distance shimmering against the foothills. My backseat companion again climbed in the car, and we sped off. I watched the stranger’s progress into the desert until his residual scent forced me to turn back to my window and push my face into the welcome rush of hot, desert air.

Several months later, I stood in the kitchen of a former restaurant the Church was renting for use as a chapel. I was helping prepare a meal for a branch dinner party and listening to a Piurana tell me that the seeds in the tomatoes I had sliced were poisonous and must be removed.

I laughed, and she responded curtly, “Hay algunas cosas que no entienda, Elder.

This triggered the memory of something I truly did not understand, and I recounted the story of my trip from Chiclayo to Piura. She listened intently, her expression growing serious, but she listened without interrupting until I was finished.

¿Sabe quién fue?” she asked soberly.

“Who?” I asked.

Usted se encontró con don Pedro, el brujo del territorio norteño.

“You’re telling me the guy was a witch?” I asked, my tone revealing my incredulity.

She spoke as if to a child, “Es el criado del Satánas y el brujo más poderoso en todo el norte del Perú. Se puede convertir en cualquier animal: un cóndor, un burro, todo lo que quiera.

There are no such things as witches, sister,” I counseled.

Hay brujería en la Biblia,” she argued.

“We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly,” I quoted.

¿Se enfermó luego?

“Me? What do you mean?”

¿Se mareó después? ¿Fuerte?

I almost told her, no—that I hadn’t fallen ill after encountering the man she called don Pedro. But the way she had intensified her question, asking if the illness had been “strong,” invoked a memory I had misplaced. I had fallen ill later that night; a few hours after the colectivo had dropped me at my pensión. I was, in fact, sicker than I had been since arriving in Peru, sicker than I would be for the rest of my mission.

Le dio el malojo, Elder,” she stepped back from me, her voice reveling deep distress.

“What’s the ‘malojo’?”

Es de una maldición, un maleficio, un hechizo mágico que haga daño a usted sin saberlo,” she whispered nervously.

“The colectivo driver gave me a mango at the check-point,” I countered. “I had no way to wash it, and I didn’t want to offend the man, so I ate it anyway. That’s what probably made me sick.”

¿Se lo echó a perder?

“I don’t understand.”

Si fuera la carne, algo que se podría pudrir, entonces le podría hacer enfermo. Pero no se enferme de un mango. Fruta no puede hacer que se enferme.

“No, it wasn’t rotten.”

Claro,” she concluded, placing a finger aside her nose and raising her eyebrows knowingly.

The evil eye, I would later learn, is a superstition common in a variety of forms to many cultures. And although I did not believe that evil had been worked upon me by means of a mere look, I believed that she believed it. And her belief added to my story an unexpected element of the supernatural, making it not only one of my most memorable mission experiences, but also one of my best mission stories—one I would tell and retell many times over the next forty-three years.


denhalter-face3But remembering is also forgetting. And each time I told my story of don Pedro, my mind might have invented bits of memory to fill in the blanks left by bits gone missing due to the passage of time or bits never stored to memory in the first place—but, nevertheless, begged for by a story needing logical continuity. If I think I remember looking for the missing passenger, my mind is apparently capable of inventing distinctly vivid images of things I think I saw during that search—the five wet spots in the sand behind the makeshift shelter, the color of the check-point office, the make and model of the Guardia vehicle parked beside the kiosk—not necessarily because I saw those things, but because it makes sense that I would have seen them. So, I am forced to accept the inevitable conclusion that I have unconsciously made my story of don Pedro the object of multiple, successive reinventions.

I am comfortable with the mind’s creativity, with its need for logical cohesion, and even with its suggestibility. What good would it do to fight it, or worse, to deny it? What I am not comfortable with, however, is my inability to analyze my memories—to tease out the true bits and separate them from the invented bits.

Take, for example, the most fantastic element of my story—the disappearance of the fourth passenger. On the face of it, this suggests the possibility that one man with supernatural powers harmed another man, possibly murdering him, simply for a ride in our colectivo.

But it seems impossible that someone, brujo or not, could silently incapacitate this man with the rest of us so close by and leave no trace of violence. Did he, instead, lure the man into the desert before attacking him? I recall looking for footprints leading away from either side of the highway, and seeing none. But perhaps I misremember. That is the unapologetic thesis of the neuroscientists. And, perhaps I also misremember the lay of the land. Is it more realistic, then, to presume that don Pedro lured his victim some distance away from us, attacked him, and left him unconscious or dead in a shallow arroyo that I could not see from the edge of the highway?

But how, then, did he remove himself from the scene of his crime and come to stand by the highway several kilometers away, awaiting our arrival—and all in a matter of minutes? Are we to believe he turned himself into a condor, closing the distance with the beat of mighty wings?

A more likely explanation is that we arrived at the provincial check-point with only three passengers. It is conceivable that I may have fallen prey to the temptation of adding a fourth passenger gone missing to intensify the brujo’s malevolence, and my own heroism. No longer would it be a story about vomit-inducing sorcery, with its effect occurring hours after the baleful thaumaturge was no longer around to admire his handiwork. Now it was a more sinister tale.

This, of course, complicates the molecular model of remembering and forgetting. It adds to the potential for unconscious reinvention—the potential for willful creativity—some of which is apparently stored to memory and later mistaken to be authentic experience. Thus our memories, as with my story, can be filled with true bits, unintentionally manufactured bits, and bits of blarney.

But there had to be a fourth passenger.

A colectivo is a car or van that drives a route through a city picking up passengers. It is a little more expensive than a bus, but offers a quicker, more comfortable ride. You speak up when you want to get out, and the driver continues on his route looking for anyone who might flag him down and fill an empty seat. But my journey involved a long-distance colectivo—a car that takes on all passengers at once and drives them from one city to another. A customer can reserve a seat or just show up at the company’s place of departure to stand in line. A driver pulls his car up to the queue waiting at the curb. The passengers load their bags and climb into the car, and the driver transports them all to the same destination—very simple and very regular. What is important to understand, however, is that the long-distance colectivo never leaves the curb without a full complement of four passengers.

Logic dictates, then, that we left Chiclayo with four passengers. But one of us could have moved from the back seat to the front seat to accommodate don Pedro, making us three in the front and three in the back. A colectivo driver will not risk the loss of a fare by leaving town without a full load, but there is no reason I know of that he will not pick up a fifth passenger along the way. A fifth fare is one the driver can pocket outside his employer’s ken.

However, I have no memory of don Pedro paying his fare, and I have a very strong memory of looking for the missing passenger. In my mind, I can see very clearly the things I observed and examined during that search. But the molecular model of memory renders all this useless. It is proof of nothing.


denhalter-face5Unhappy news for the memoirists. Having had to come to terms with the unavoidably subjective nature of perception, they must now cope with a further erosion of the pride they take in creating primary documents so foundational to later historical research. Even if the memoirist is working from a personal diary, each entry penned is a remembering. And the inclusion of the essence of a journal entry or of the interpretation of its meaning into an extended text is again an additional remembering.

For me, however, this problem has to do with something more than the truth of our historical past. It also has to do with identity.

Uncomfortable with the existence of anything outside the natural world, many modern thinkers deny that there is an eternal soul which makes me who I am, suggesting instead that I am nothing more than my collective memories.

The traditional model of memory is analogous to a loop of movie film (or a bit of digital video code), and remembering is simply my mind retrieving it from storage and playing back for me the cinematic record of my past—that which has made me who I am. So, who I am is impermanent. When I die, that which is essentially me disappears like a breath on the wind, and I exist only as a version of myself in the minds of those who knew me, and survive me, and remember me.

But the molecular model of memory makes that which is me not just impermanent but false. My collection of personal memories may constitute a unique identity, but one that is a fiction. While living, I am not who I see myself to be. And when dead, the fiction dies too, and I exist only as a version of my imagined self in the minds of those who knew me, and survive me, and remember me. Yet in remembering me, I am repeatedly reinvented until their deaths allow my ambiguous ghost to fade to nothing.

Mormon theology, however, offers a radical take on human identity. It posits us as tripartite beings: an uncreated being from a realm outside God’s purview, wrapped in a body of refined matter—a body of flame—to be raised in a realm of everlasting burnings, and wrapped again in flesh to experience the wonders and sadness of this world. Is it this full complement of being that makes me who I am? If so, what is there to distinguish me from other such beings, if not my memories? And where might the pristine, unadulterated memories of my tripartite existence reside? And when I pass on to greater glory, does the true identity they constitute overwhelm and eradicate the fiction I have made of myself in this life?

I have long suspected there is a non-linguistic mechanism that underlies our thoughts, imposing a narrative order to our sensory perception. We imagine ourselves to be thinking in language, but this is merely the habit of talking to ourselves, much like moving our lips when silently reading. Beneath the interior monologue, there is a mental process that does not traffic in words. I have caught glimpses of it in waking moments of focused distraction (or, perhaps, distracted focus): images without words which nonetheless present content with a narrative structure. This mechanism is evident also in dreams. A man appears, and I know who he is, though he looks nothing like the living person. I know without explanation where he has come from and the intent of his actions.

It was Kant who first denied the popular opinion that the mind is a passive recipient of sensory data. He described it instead as an active agent that imposes an ordered structure onto perception. Thus, it was not the eyes that saw or the ears that heard, but rather the mind. Hume insisted that while the mind does impose probably inaccurate causal relationships upon sensory data, our ability to impress a narrative onto our experience allows our species to successfully navigate a reality we do not completely understand. Were it otherwise, we would be condemned to experience just “one damn thing after another.”

But here I must make a distinction between mind and brain. Mind, for some philosophers, is the emergent consequence of highly complex biological systems. Mind, therefore, although dependent upon the brain, is not identical with it. Because mental states are not brain states, mind cannot be reduced to mere biology, nor from biology can it be reduced to mere chemistry, nor from chemistry to mere physics.

Is the original seat of the mind to be found in the uncreated “intelligence” at the core of our tripartite existence? Does it emerge enhanced from the added complexity of a spirit brain, and further so from that of a mortal brain? Did this intelligence create a fiction of my prior existences just as my mortal brain makes a fiction of this existence? As an exalted man, will my original intelligence continue to make a fiction of my future existence(s)? If so, is God subject to the will of a narrative-making mind?

The Lord tells us, “all things are present before mine eyes” (D&C 38:2). We might interpret this to refer to spatial proximity were it not for the scriptures further telling us that at the throne of God, “all things for their glory are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord” (D&C 130:7). This passage appears to argue that between this life and the next, a change occurs in the temporal nature of our perception since it seems unlikely that a narrative structure could be ordered from “every damn thing all at once.” It would seem, then, that exaltation precludes making a fiction of experience—at least in a mortal sense.

So, what then is to be gained from living for eons with a mind that makes of reality a fiction? Is the point to humble us with the human condition—that being one in which, however great our progress toward it, ultimate truth ever recedes from our grasp? And if this is the case, is the narrative-making mind not sufficient to teach us the reality of our circumstance? What need is there to further adulterate simple experience with the myriad flaws of memory? Is this the purpose of faith, not religious faith necessarily (i.e., being tied to traditional beliefs), but rather an awareness that human knowledge is contingent? By accepting contingency as our natural state, we can reject dogma, we can question our own assumptions, and we can demand reasonable explanations while respecting a divergence of opinion because we are all of us, if we are paying attention, allowed only to approach from a distance that which we can never fully speak of and, therefore, know. What can we do then but submit inevitably to the Great Mystery?

We have been told that God lives in a realm of timefullness, a realm comprised of only “now.” We can imagine that this non-narrative existence grants him “all power, all wisdom, and all understanding” (Alma 26:35). But can this simply mean that God has all the power, all the wisdom, and all the knowledge there is to be had by an exalted man and not that which is as yet beyond his grasp? He began his journey as we did: a tripartite being subject to the same mental limitations. Is exaltation the final step of eternal progress or merely the next stage? Does exaltation present the gods with its own set of limitations requiring of them a continued submission to the Great Mystery and a consequently humble agnosticism?


denhalter-face1Nineteen years after returning home from my mission, I found myself at the University of Missouri at Kansas City working on a professional certification with a group of businessmen from around the country. The course required those enrolled to attend all-day classes for two weeks, every three months, for a year. I spent my one free weekend each quarter visiting Mormonism’s historical sites in Missouri, and toward the end of the year, I had pretty much seen all there was to see. So one Friday night, I accompanied some of my fellow students to a local restaurant and blues bar. During a conversation, one of them asked where I disappeared to on the weekends, and they were surprised to learn that there were Mormon historical sites in the mid-west. I explained to them how their ancestors chased my ancestors out of the region a century or so before.

“Are you Mormon?” one of them asked. I was both pleased and shamed by the incredulous tone in which the question was asked.

“Were you ever one of those missionary kids?” one of them asked. I told them I had served in Peru, and one of group straightened himself and leaned toward me.

“I was in Peru,” he shouted above the din, “with the Peace Corps.”

“When where you there?” I asked.

“From ‘71 to ‘73. When were you there?” I told him I had served from 1969 to 1971.

“Where were you stationed, or assigned, or whatever you call it?” I asked him.

“All over northern Peru, but mostly Trujillo.”

“I lived in Trujillo for a time. I also lived in Chiclayo and Piura.” He told a funny story about a woman he’d hired to do his laundry. Everyone laughed.

“I have a story for you,” I said. And I began to tell them of my experience with don Pedro and the missing man. As I reached the part where I was battling the pungent stranger in a staring contest, the man who had served in the Peace Corps interrupted.

“Whoa, you met don Pedro?” he asked. “Cool.”

“How do you know about don Pedro?” It had taken me a beat or two to get over my shock and ask that question.

“Everyone knows about don Pedro. Dude was infamous in those parts.”


The ants return, in straight lines now. They carry their dead and drop them solemnly on the watch face in a mounded heap.                                                             

One comment

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