On Forgetting

1 Mar

I’ve been recently studying the idea of memory. Ironically, my brain was so off yesterday that I couldn’t remember anything, it seemed. It started when my laptop plug decided to spark up and die. I was angry for about five minutes and then I remembered I had a spare laptop. I dig through my closet and finally spot it. Upon booting up, I stare at a log-in screen. I cannot remember the password to save my life. I try every combination known to man when finally a password hint pops up. The hint is “Yahoo!” What a relief, I thought. The password is clearly the same as my Yahoo! account. I place my hands on the keyboard and realize I have forgotten my Yahoo! password. After about 10 minutes of continuous cursing, I suddenly remember I can just use my tablet. I whip it out and go to power it on, but it’s dead — and of course, I can’t remember where the charger is. Ok. What the heck is going on?

This annoying experience had me thinking: why is memory so spotty sometimes? Furthermore, what kind of cues would have helped me to remember things like my old password or where I last put my charger? After doing some brief research, I came across the term “cue-dependent forgetting” also known as “retrieval failure.”

The idea behind cue-dependent forgetting is that we fail to recall because of missing stimuli. The information still exists, but without these cues, retrieval is not likely. When I purchased that spare laptop, I was a total weirdo in high school. Of course, five years later, I am a completely different person (hopefully less weird). Perhaps in high school, I chose to make my password something that generally made sense to me then. Because I no longer have those cues that were present at the time I encoded that memory, it makes sense that it would be difficult to decode it now.  Moreover, “state-dependent cues” relate to our state of mind and being at the time of encoding which can certainly be completely different years later when you are trying to perform retrieval.

I may have learned some new ideas behind memory, but perhaps the biggest lesson I learned is to write things down and keep important information in a safe (and memorable) place.


On Borges’ Funes, the Memorious

16 Feb

Upon reading Borges’ Funes, the Memorious, it occurred to me that the inability to forget sounds like pure torture. Ireneo spoke as if getting thrown off a horse and suddenly being blessed with the capability to remember everything was the greatest thing that happened to him. Had that happened to me, I’d feel as if I were living a nightmare. Ireneo wasn’t just one of those people we label as having a pretty good memory. This guy remembered every single leaf on every single branch on every single tree in every single forest. He remembered every word spoken to him and every gesture made in his sight. He even remembered every time  he acquired new memories. In other words, he could remember himself remembering. What a vicious cycle.

In exploring more Nietzsche philosophy this week, I suppose Ireneo was really a depressed guy. Nietzsche used the analogy of a cow to depict the idea of “active forgetting.” Nietzsche suggests that because it has no past, the cow is always happy. But the cow cannot confirm its happiness accurately because it does not have the ability to recall its previous state. How would it know it was ever sad?

If Ireneo ever incurred an unpleasant moment in his life, he had the power to dwell on the experience forever. This wouldn’t have been the usual reminiscing that we are used to today. These memories  start off as vivid early on and eventually fade with time. No, Ireneo would have remembered every explicit detail which would help make these flooding memories rich and accurate every single time, maybe even just as painful as when first experienced. He would have never been able to overcome a haunting event and I think that’s pretty sad. Imagine going through an embarrassing or traumatizing moment in your life and continuously replaying the scene over and over again in your head. But not just the scene itself, recalling every fine detail that made the moment embarrassing or traumatizing. Sounds like insanity!

Lingering on the past has the potential to  preclude happiness, necessary action, and further development in the present and future. Nietzsche calls for an abandonment from our pasts because it “returns as a ghost and disturbs the peace of a later moment.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

On Suppressing the Past

10 Feb

When we do something we know we’ll come to regret, we try to forget. But, are we really forgetting or merely choosing not to remember? There’s a strong difference between the two, for me. Toni Morrison’s Beloved illustrates the story of a mother who made an ultimate sacrifice by murdering her daughter rather than be recaptured as a slave by her master. Looking closely at Sethe’s life as she continued on after this moment, it seems to me she tried her hardest to suppress both her actions as well as her former life as a slave. It’s not that she could ever forget such horrific experiences, but rather she found it best to not dwell on the past. It is still clear, however, that these memories were still laying heavily on her shoulders as she tried to seclude her family from the outside world. When Beloved comes back into her life, Sethe practically falls apart as she devotes all of her attention to her and neglects her relationship with Denver. I think this was her way of apologizing to Beloved and trying to make up for all the lost time because of what she did. When Beloved is exorcised, Sethe is able to move on and focus on her family. But, it wasn’t Beloved being destroyed that helped Sethe do so, I think it had to do more with her finally accepting “what is” and forgiving herself, a good initial step in dealing with any traumatic situation.

Nietzsche believed that the happiest people are those who know how to forget. Perhaps I am analyzing the term “forget” too closely because I don’t think we can intentionally forget something, at least not a significant memory or experience. Take leaving  your keys in your car, for example. You can say to yourself “oops! I forgot.” But, if something substantial or perhaps even traumatic happens in your life, you can’t really respond with “oops! I chose to forget that day.” Still, I do support Nietzsche’s idea of suppressing memories of the past that prevent you from moving along in both the present and your future. My idea of the strongest people are those who can pick themselves up by their own bootstraps, not “forget” where they’ve come from, but acknowledge what has shaped them.

On “Historical Amnesias: An Interview with Paul Connerton”

2 Feb

I think Collerton presents a clear distinction between memory and history. The point I agreed with most is the fact that historians can reject something explicitly told to them in their evidence and substitute their own interpretation of events in its place. To me, this is the biggest difference between historical studies and authentic memory studies. The latter is unbiased and pure while historians have no guaranteed recollection of what might have occurred. As Collerton put it, “history is autonomous with regard to social memory.” Another interesting point I found in this piece was the idea of characterizing the idea of forgetting in a positive context. Collerton talks about the recommendation of forgetting. “To think too closely about their previous attachment would bring about too much cognitive dissonance in terms of how their memories of the past related to their ongoing practices in the present.” This quote is further reflected in the ideas of Nietzsche, who I had a chance to explore more in the book “Theories of Memory.” Nietzsche believed that happiness consists of the ability to forget, or what one might refer to as the ability to “feel unhistorically.” We as high-order animals possess the ability to heal wounds and replace what has been lost. Nietzsche refers to this as “plastic power.” Those who have little plastic power can perish after one painful  event. The infamous saying goes “forgive, but don’t forget”, but I actually think a better variation might be “let’s forgive and forget.”