April 7, 2021; revised April 8, 2021; September 10, 2022; March 4, 2023
Records of our memories (nāmagotta) are permanent. A handful of people worldwide have autobiographical memories, i.e., they can recall their past experiences in great detail. These memory records are the same as “atīta pañcakkhandha.”
Memory Versus Autobiographical Memory
1. An average human can only recall relatively few memories, even from this life. During our waking hours, we experience many things. How many events from yesterday can you recall in detail? If you are asked what you ate for lunch or wore to work on a specific day last month, can you recall?
- There are only a handful of people in the world who CAN recall such things in great detail. They can remember anything they experienced on any given day for many years. That is a unique ability, and scientists call it “Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory” or HSAM.
- Note that this is not an ability of memorization. As we see below, some of them CANNOT memorize a poem, for example. They can recall whatever they saw, heard, stated, smelled, touched, or thought about. That is why it is called “autobiographical memory.”
- They can recall ONLY those things that they experienced. Suppose they had watched a TV show on a specific day, even several years ago. They can “bring back that memory” in their mind and re-live that experience. It is like “playing back” that TV show again in their mind!
- If you ask them what they ate for lunch on a specific day back in 1980, for example, they can “playback” that scene of them eating lunch on that day: They can tell you not only what they ate but what the weather was like, and who they were with, etc. It is as if their brain is a video recorder, and they can play back on any past event. But the brain cannot “store” events in such detail.
- The critical point is that those with HSAM capability are RECALLING those memories from a depository. There is no way that such details can be stored in the brain. Scientists are “stuck” and have not been able to explain the phenomenon of HSAM; see the review article at the end of the post.
- Whatever ALL OF US experience goes into a depository in the viññāna plane (nāma loka), as we will discuss below. Different people have varying capabilities to retract that information.
First Recorded Case of Autobiographical Memory
2. That AMAZING ability first came to light with Jill Price, who contacted a team of scientists in the early 2000s about her ability to recall anything from 1974 onwards. Here is a video of her with Diane Sawyer on an ABC News program in 2008:
- She cannot recall all of her life, but just those events after 1974. The ability of HSAM just got “turned on” when she was a teenager.
The Amazing Recalling Ability of Jill Price
3. Let us discuss the main points from the above video.
@1:10 minutes: She remembers everything since she was 14 years old.
@2:50 minutes: Diane Sawyer tests Jill’s ability to recall past events. She passes all tests.
@4:20 minutes: Jill says she has a “split-screen” in her head. She talks to Diane while “watching” the playback of whatever past event she recalls. She describes what she had for lunch on May 27, 2006. Remember that the above interview was recorded in 2008. Since she kept a detailed diary, anyone can check these accounts. One may think she has memorized all those detailed records, but that is impossible, especially since she can’t memorize even a poem.
Connection to Nāmagotta and Atita Pañcakkhandha
4. Let us pause and make the connection to Buddha Dhamma.
- As discussed in the post, “Difference Between Rūpa and Rūpakkhandha,” rupakkhandha is 11 types. But all 11 types are in 3 main categories: atīta, anāgata, paccuppanna (past, future, current.) All other types are included in these three types. For example, internal (related to one’s own body) and external rupa must be of past, future, or present.
- The paccuppanna (or current) rupa are those being experienced now. In a moment, it will go to the past and be added to the atīta (past) rupa category. The category of anāgata (future) rupa is those we hope/expect to experience.
- As we can see, the atīta (past) rupa category dominates one’s rupakkhandha. It is also clear that rupakkhandha is one’s own; it is what one has experienced. One person’s rupakkhandha is different from someone else’s.
- Furthermore, those atīta (past) rupa (i.e., atīta rupakkhandha) are just RECORDS of past rupa that one has experienced. They are PERMANENT. Whatever happened cannot be changed.
Memories Are the Same as Atita Pañcakkhandha (Past Experiences)
5. Now, here is another KEY point to remember. Whenever an event (registering of one of six kinds of rupa) registers in the mind, corresponding mental aggregates (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāna) also register. Thus all five aggregates (pañcakkhandha) arise and immediately go into atīta pañcakkhandha.
- For example, suppose we hear a pleasing sound, for example. It may register as a sukha vedanā, and we recognize what that sound is (saññā.) Then we think about it (saṅkhāra), and the overall sensory experience is viññāna (in this case, sota viññāna.)
- Thus not only is that sound (sadda rupa) registered in the mind, but those mental components are also registered. Thus, a rupakkhandha ALWAYS arises with the other four khandhas (aggregates.) In other words, pañcakkhandha arises with any sensory event and is immediately recorded as atīta pañcakkhandha.
- Those records (atīta pañcakkhandha) are in the viññāna plane (nāma loka) and can be recalled at any time in the future. They are called “nāmagotta.” (With each sensed event, a record of it gets added to nāmagotta in viññāṇa dhātu — via the mana indriya in the brain.)
- Details at “Arising of Five Aggregates Based on an Ārammaṇa,” “Our Two Worlds: Material and Immaterial,” and “Where Are Memories Stored? – Viññāṇa Dhātu.”
- Please note that reading and understanding the posts I refer to is necessary if one wants to understand these concepts. Just reading a post or two will not do.
People With Iddhi (Supernormal) Powers Can Recall Past Lives
6. Now, we can see how the Buddha could “look back” and recall his past lives extending trillions of years to the past.
- Just like Jill Price can recall any event that took place in HER life, the Buddha could recall any event that happened in his life. The only difference is that Jill Price can recall ONLY her current life from 1974. The Buddha could recall any event in his ANY previous life!
- By the way, anyone who can cultivate the fourth jhāna (Ariya or anariya jhāna) could recall at least a few past lives. Even before the Buddha, many yogis could recall several past lives. Note that some children can remember events from their previous life.
- One can recall past lives only because records of all past experiences are preserved in the viññāna plane (nāma loka). Those memories are NOT stored in the brain, but the brain plays a role in “bringing those memories back.” A discussion on this subject is in “Brain and the Gandhabba.”
- When an average human recalls (some of) past events, it is those nāmagotta that they recall. It is just that an average human can recall only significant events of his/her life. Many people with HSAM can recall all events from their current life.
Nāmagotta (Atita Pañcakkhandha) Has Records of One’s Life Experiences
7. Let us go back to discussing the video of #2 above.
@5:15 minutes: Jill Price says she was not “good in school” and could not memorize even a simple poem. She meant that she was an average student who was not exceptionally intelligent. What she has is not KNOWLEDGE but an ability to RECALL memories. As she explains, her memory is autobiographical, i.e., she can recall ONLY those events she has experienced (seen, heard, tasted, smelled, touched, and thought about.)
@6:40 minutes: She says that she “travels in her head.” That means she can travel to the past and relive an experience as if it is happening now!
@6:40 minutes: She says she cannot go on the TV show “Jeopardy” and win because she does not have general knowledge about the world. She can recall ONLY those EVENTS that she experienced, for example, by watching TV. This is a critical point that I want to emphasize. It is not knowledge/wisdom that she has, but the ability to RECALL past events in great detail!
8. All our memories (including those from previous lives) are preserved in the viññāna plane (nāma loka.)
- The ability to recall memories is a complex subject. A Buddha can recall events from ANY life in the past. An average human can recall only bits and pieces from the current life. Between those two extremes, there is a huge variety of that capability.
- Recalling a memory means playback of that old experience in one’s mind. Recalling an “experience” recreates that whole past event. That includes that part of the rupakkhandha and the event’s mental attributes (other four aggregates). Thus, it plays back that part of the “atīta pañcakkhandha.”
- The five aggregates (pañcakkhandha) are one’s own. It has one’s past experiences, experiences happening at the present moment, and hopes/expectations of future experiences.
9. Each person is automatically attached (taṇhā) based on one’s past experiences. One would like to “keep them close,” i.e., have “upādāna” for those things. Those past experiences (atīta pañcakkhandha) influence one’s character/habits (gati.) That is how “pañca upādānakkhandha” arises. All these concepts are interrelated. I hope you can at least begin to appreciate these relationships.
- To break bad gati and to avoid taṇhā/upādāna for things that can get one into trouble, one must be able to clarify these concepts and “see” how future suffering arises due to them.
- The “cooling down of the mind” can result ONLY via gaining knowledge of this process. Following moral guidelines (precepts) is essential to get to the right mindset. But it is paññā (wisdom) that eventually leads to the right vision (Sammā Diṭṭhi) at the Sotapanna stage.
10. Putting all the necessary information into one post is impossible. If one desires to comprehend these concepts, one must spend some time reading all related posts. I have mentioned some above.
- Other related posts: “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM),” “Autobiographical Memory – Preserved in Nāma Loka,” “Rupa and Rupakkhandha, Nāma and Nāmagotta.”
- Here is a recent review article on memory recall: “Individual Differences in Autobiographical Memory – Daniela J. Palombo et al.-2018.”
- All posts in this subsection at “Paṭicca Samuppāda – Essential Concepts.”
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