“I Was a Child” at the Rubin Museum

The topic of a recent Brainwave event called “I Was a Child” is one that we rely on every single day: the function of memory. Bruce Eric Kaplan (also known as BEK) has been a cartoonist for The New Yorker for more than twenty years, as well as a writer for shows including “Seinfeld” and HBO’s “Girls.” Joining him on stage was Therapeutic Cognitive Neuroscience Professor Barry Gordon, M.D., to discuss the role memory plays in keeping us bound to the past.

Gordon, a longtime Dana Alliance member, led the discussion by introducing the themes of memory, consciousness, and awareness, which he said all “come out in Bruce’s cartoons.” Behind the two guest speakers, a familiar image that Kaplan drew for The New Yorker was projected onto a big screen. The single-panel cartoon features a stern wife standing in the doorway and asking her husband, who is reclining on the couch, “Did you remember to do everything I asked, including the small things I said in passing that didn’t sound like real requests?”

When Gordon asked Kaplan how he thought of the idea for this cartoon, he explained that he simply illustrated a scene he’s experienced as a married man and has witnessed in other relationships.  Gordon thought this image was relevant to the night’s discussion because it illustrates how “we don’t remember everything.” He explained that there’s an immeasurable amount of thoughts and experiences that our brains process daily. From that, we can only capture a small percentage which then becomes what we regard as memories.

Gordon described the two types of human memory: skill memory (a.k.a. procedural memory), which is one we are less conscious of, and ordinary memory (a.k.a. episodic memory). Skill memory comes into play when we are doing “automatic” things such as reading words on a page, riding a bike, etc. Ordinary memory allows us to recall places, names, events, etc. “That’s the one that’s so fragile in human beings,” he added.

Kaplan’s illustrations seem to come from a very intrinsic place, where he is sometimes unconscious of the interpretation himself. While Gordon stated that “an explanation shouldn’t detract from the appreciation” of a cartoon, Kaplan’s ideology stood directly opposite. He said that regardless of what people take away from an illustration, “the meaning is in the intention” as opposed to the reader.

“What I thought was happening in many of your cartoons was a very interesting process involving the very highest levels of human cognition: self-awareness,” Gordon noted. Kaplan acknowledged that he was always fascinated by consciousness and purpose. “[Meaning] is a big thing for me…I’m always looking at myself, and, as you say, looking at myself, looking at myself, and so on.”

Kaplan experienced a self-awakening as a young boy watching actors on TV. (The event’s title is named after Kaplan’s latest memoir.) “This is where I felt understood and seen and contained…It was profound for me in that the TV showed me what life could be like. [It] was more real than real life.” Much of Kaplan’s inspiration—as both a cartoonist and writer—stems from a yearning he had as a child to fully experience life. “[TV shows] were about the emotions and the ups and downs and the expressiveness…It felt like people really ‘living’ was really encouraging me [as an artist].” Gordon added, “Creativity comes from imperfect memories. Sometimes [imagination] can be more real than reality.”

This is the second Brainwave event we’ve covered where the Rubin has invited cartoonists to discuss the role that their art plays in neuroscience. This year marks the Rubin Museum’s eighth annual Brainwave series of conversations, films, and experiences revolving around neuroscience. Events continue until April 29; tickets can be purchased at the door or online.

 -Seimi Rurup

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