World Building and Memory

Humanity is the only species, as far as I know, that creates universes on a regular basis. Whether with words, computer code, or our minds, we are obsessed with processing the world in front of us and making it mean more. We are human because we seek to form narratives. We turn a series of disconnected images into scenes, and those scenes into a story about our own lives.

In the 2010 film Inception, Christopher Nolan offers a theory of dreaming through his protagonist Cobb. “[The mind] creates and perceives a world simultaneously. So well that you don’t feel your brain doing the creating,” Nolan writes, the stress on the automatic nature of dream world building[1]. In the dream, we quite literally feed our own delusions. When Ariadne, the audience insert, questions how this could ever seem like the real world, without the details that we can see in the waking world. Cobb replies empathically with the universal truth that “Our dreams feel real while we’re in them”[2]. Part of the reason that the mind is predisposed to the deception of dreams is because there is a fundamental similarity between the waking world and the dream world. In dreams, we compose a scene from objects that could not exist without the focus of our dreaming perception. In reality, we compose a scene from objects that would exist, even without our attention.

Even in the instances where we know we are awake, we cannot always trust our own senses to tell us the truth. Merleau-Ponty speaks at length about the phenomenon of the phantom limb. The sensation of the arm is not necessarily tied to the existence of one, but neither is the sensation of the phantom limb completely divorced from reality. Rather, “the phantom limb often maintains the very position occupied by the real arm at the moment of injury” [3]. The brain sees a gap, and it fills that gap to the best of its ability using memory. To take a more mundane example, perhaps, a person can often get caught up in perceived physical defects that he or she believes are instantly noticeable. An advertising campaign was run earlier this year to that effect, calling to attention the terms in which we describe ourselves[4]. There is no photographic perception here, either for the speaker or the observer, but the differences between the two versions are stunning.

We do not see the detail of reality all the time. Sometimes we see a memory of the truth. For example, Merleau-Ponty describes how we tend to project our memories onto the physical world in front of us. We do not read every letter of every word or sentence on a page. Rather, we fill in the gaps, which can leave us with misplaced perceptions like substituting the word “deduction” for “destruction.” We are not substituting a random experience for the present, though. We are simply drawing from a previous one we feel to be relevant[5]. It is perhaps for this reason that in Inception there is a huge deal made over the fact that dreams should never be constructed from memory. “Building dreams out of your own memories is the surest way to lose your grip on what’s real and what’s a dream,” our inquisitive audience surrogate is told, and this rings true in our daily interaction with the world[6].  When our reality is built partially on memory, it is exceptionally important not to build an “unreality” on it as well.  Or, to quote Merleau-Ponty, “the illusion tricks us precisely by passing itself off as authentic”[7].

Atwood commits this very crime, however, as does almost every fiction writer from the canonical authors to internet trolls. The Handmaid’s Tale builds on real American groups and conflicts to create the nation of Gilead. Part of what is so horrifying about Offred’s situation is the idea, in the back of the reader’s mind, that this could become reality. Outside of Atwood’s world-building skills, Offred is humanized by her narration. As we learn, she recorded her memories as a way to communicate her experience and attempt a find reason in the world that she now inhabits. She leaves a record, a luxury that we all try to mimic by writing daily tweets and blog posts. She uses the story to detail her conditions, but also as a quasi-confessional. We see her flaws and contradictions, like her willingness to hide a pat of butter and carry on an affair but not to communicate with a woman in a similar situation. And finally, in the epilogue, we see an academic critique of the narrative we have just been immersed in. Some of this critique is hopelessly patronizing and sterile—“there is a reflective quality… that would to my mind rule out synchronicity”[8]—while other parts have the high expectations of distance—“What would we not give, now, for even twenty pages or so of print-out from Waterford’s private computer!”[9]. It is interesting how the speaker at the conference refers to the resource he has, The Handmaid’s Tale, as a “crumb.” There is an implication that we often disregard the historical significance of the vents around us in order to focus on the narratives of our own stories, although Atwood seems to criticize the idea that the individual should serve as history fodder.

Regardless, we must acknowledge, then, that our reality has a dream-like quality. Focused in the center and blurry on the edges. Gunaratana relates this type of experience to “lunacy,” “a perpetual treadmill race to nowhere, endlessly pounding after pleasure, endlessly fleeing from pain, and endlessly ignoring 90 percent of our experience. Then we wonder why life tastes so flat”[10]. Indeed, when we live in a moment but allow our senses to be dulled by our mind, we allow our lives to become sitcoms or soap operas, endlessly repeating the same scenarios without real growth. We present the world with a projection of what we ought to be, what we ought to seek, rather than ourselves, and we perceive the world as we feel we must. This is the cycle that a key like meditation unlocks. Among other goals, meditation seeks to harness our attention by focusing it and opening it. Rather than attempting to fill in a scene, the well trained mind is better able to live in the moment. Meditation does not craft a new universe. Rather, it gives new tools with which to build.

In social media, we find another tool for this world-building. We can share the world we perceive with people we will never know beyond an avatar on the screen, and we can research happenings across the world. We use it as a source for our own narratives, adding context and background and believability. It is odd, then, how this universe circumvents the traditional senses, but does not seem any less real. Yet there is still some limits. We interact with people we know “in real life” on Facebook and other platforms. We deal better with an online persona that we already have memories with than those we do not. For while we are always creating new universes, they are never completely original. Rather, the new universes we imagine and build are remixes of the old.


[1]Christopher Nolan, Inception: The Shooting Script (San Rafael, CA: Insight Editions, 2010), 65.

[2] Christopher Nolan, Inception: The Shooting Script (San Rafael, CA: Insight Editions, 2010), 65. Emphasis Nolan’s.

[3]Maurice Meleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (New York: Routledge, 2012), 78.

[4]Emma Gray, “Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ Ad Campaign Tells Women ‘You’re More Beautiful Than You Think’ (VIDEO),” The Huffington Post, 17 April 2013.

[5]Maurice Meleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (New York: Routledge, 2012), 21.

[6] Christopher Nolan, Inception: The Shooting Script (San Rafael, CA: Insight Editions, 2010), 71.

[7]Maurice Meleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (New York: Routledge, 2012), 22.

[8]Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, (New York: Anchor, 1998), 303.

[9]Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, (New York: Anchor, 1998), 310.

[10]Bhante Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English: 20th Anniversary Edition, Kindle Locations 159-160.


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