Reconstructing Experience (R6)

Experience is what’s happening right now + what we seem to think happened in the past—the story we tell ourselves. In fact, as soon as things have happened they become part of the story, part of experience, part of what we like to call ‘memory’. It’s called ‘learning ’…

But there is no such thing as memory; we do not ‘have’ a memory so it’s no good imagining that your memory is failing or wishing that you had a memory like other people seem to have. There is no such entity as ‘memory’.

Repeat: There is no such thing as memory. What we like to call ‘memory’ is actually a reconstructive process not a thing. This is easily proved! What happens if you’re asked to think about what you were doing this time last year? You go into a reconstructive process: what’s the date, what’s the day, what’s the time, what kind of thing was I doing last year at this time? And so on till you narrow down the possibilities. You may even remember exactly what you were doing this time last year.

Some years ago I used to point out to intending teachers that their task was [is now] to provide learners with as many of the salient bits & pieces of a subject in such a way that will, in appropriate circumstances (exam, practical need, at interview, etc) enable them easily to reconstruct things for themselves and in their own way. The test of success would be the accuracy and/or the complexity of their reconstructing…

Antonio Damasio (eminent neuro-scientist who ought to know about these things) points out that all our mental images—whatever things ‘come into our mind’—are the result of a reconstructive process. Nothing mental comes in a ready-made form. Asked what you think of efforts to reduce the Deficit you go into a reconstructive process; even “I don’t know…” is prefaced by a moment of fishing around in the brain for something sensible to say, if ever so brief.

Maybe consciousness itself is a reconstructive process: there’s nothing there until we start trying to find out what’s going on for us; we always start from nothing and then begin to build a picture of what we like to think of as our ‘reality’. The mistake we often make is to make the assumption that our reality is the same as somebody else’s: “Surely you know just what I mean here?”

What kinds of reconstructing do we do?

Playful                            Habitual
Creative                                                                     Unthinking
……………………..Spontaneous                                                          Intentional
Quick                                                                 Slow
……………..Exploratory                                                                 Conjectural
Dim-witted                                                             Tired
………………….Random                                                                                 Precise
Imprecise                                                                            What-if?
………Unwavering                                                                                      Accidental
Awkward                                                                         Excited
Cerebral                                                                                         Confrontational
Emotional                                                             Invented
…………….Practical                                                                                                 Inaccurate
Careful                                                          Wilful
………………………………..Deliberate                                   Connective

Thousands more ways to reconstruct reality for yourself…

What’s the difference between the way I reconstructed my consciousness, my sense of being in the world, when I was, say, twenty years old (1957) and the way I do it now?

My brain may be less agile now, as they tell me it is supposed to be, but when I was twenty I had no way of relating things together; there was no background of ideas or book-references to draw on; I did not have the all-embracing notion that although things seem disconnected it is the case that everything is connected: when somebody treads on a butterfly in Beijing, ten people die in a traffic accident in Birmingham (Alabama or England).

Read Ray Bradbury’s short story A Sound of Thunder for a fantasythink about this idea… You can get it at

Anyway, at the age of twenty I was stuck in a mental state that proceeded from what has been called The Tyranny of Now which just went on and on into an impenetrable future; my view of the future was that maybe sometime the world would make sense but at that moment it was a mysterious place—just an endless rigmarole. Having been to school hadn’t helped; the general idea there seemed to be that small creatures should not concern themselves with big problems.

At least I’d read Moby Dick off my own bat, the greatest book in the world.

I remember that as I was thinking all this back then a big bluebottle was zooming round the empty room.

I still fish around for some kind of sense in things but now I have a large number of reference points, things that work for me.

But (and here’s what matters) when I take myself back to the age of twenty now I realise that I’d already started putting down markers. Moby Dick was one. And a book I picked up in Charing Cross Road, London, which was then a glorious street of secondhand bookshops: I picked it from the shelf because of its title—The Adventures of Ideas by ANWhitehead.

Charing Cross Road still has a few of the old bookshops but it is now a shadow of its former self—mobile phoneries, eateries, and clothes shops. But I still retain the sheer excitement I felt at the notion that ideas could have adventures. Every intellectual state of mine is provisional but the fizzing of ideas when they rub together down the centuries from mind to mind is still amazing to me.

What thinking markers did you put down early on? What intellectual anchors did you throw into the swirling waters of change? As teachers of the young how will you assist their reconstructive processes? Teach them how to reconstruct consciousness playfully, habitually, creatively, unthinkingly, spontaneously, intentionally, quickly, slowly—even dim-wittedlyand awkwardly, for they’ll need to know about thatand so on down the list…

One thought on “Reconstructing Experience (R6)

  1. Stupid, boring, awful, painful, and on and on my student’s list of adjectives would grow when we would begin a new lesson. Huh? I couldn’t agree more, they were right, there was no doubt about it. I was lucky to be working in a school that allowed for this type of thinking. When I agreed with the students, we were at a stalemate. So now what? We discovered that these negative feelings about learning could be fun if we gave them their say, and soon they lost all their strength. Sometimes I would use a mind map , and the kids loved filling the board with all their crappy school experiences, but what they liked the most was when I joined them. The energy in the room would change in a flash. Now there were always the toughest cases that refused to play this game. It was all just another trick to them, and they were right, it was a trick. All sorts of ideas would be revealed by their defiance and rebellion. Ideas about how stories work, and what is a trick anyway? The mind map would continue to expand and without knowing it, they all had created the foundation for a short story, since that was the original lesson plan. So writing, that thing they hated so much, was now almost done. Of course getting them to write the whole thing up is another story but let’s keep it in the day. Use the first 100 “Is” for kindling.


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