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Memory: Remembering & Forgetting

Forget Something? We Wish We Could: A new science is being developed called Therapeutic Forgetting according to this WebMDHealth article. The notion is that if we can help people to erase traumatic experiences from memory, then they can improve their emotional well being. I wonder how many of us would really want to have bad experiences in our lives erased instead of finding ways to go through the core of these negative experiences in order to emerge from them with a new vitality...

Memory: What is it?

Many definitions of memory associate it with a function of the brain. For example Wikipedia: Memory states:

Memory is a function of the brain: the ability to retain information. Memory is much studied by cognitive psychology and neuroscience. There are multiple types of classifications for memory based on duration, nature and retrieval of perceived items.

Computer Memory: The idea of memory has also developed a close association with computer technology. Using "define: memory" in a Google search, we see the following results. In fact, the number of references made to computer memory in this search out number the number of references made to human memory.

Human Memory: While our traditional thinking about human memory is immersed in ideas about the brain, we also recognize that the brain itself is not something that exists independently in our physiology. Candace Pert explores the idea of the bodymind as an integrated psychosomatic network (see: BodyMind: Candace Pert - The Physiology of Learning). Richard Restak and David Suzuki explore the intimate connection between the physiology of the brain as it relates to the kinds of experiences we have (see: Brain: Narratives, Neural Pathways & Experience). In both cases, our understanding of the brain is being pushed well beyond our traditional conceptions.

Following this line of thought, it would make sense to expand our understanding of memory as being immersed in the psychosomatic network Pert calls the bodymind as well as the spread across the neural narratives that inexorably connect the brain to experience. Memory, from this perspective, is not something that merely resides in the brain and reflected upon in the mind in isolation.

The Artistic Perspective: Timothy Findley - Memory is Survival

Quite often it is the artist we turn to in order to expand our understanding of the world. Timothy Findley provides us with a compelling journey through memory in his book Inside Memory: Pages From A Writer's Notebook. He offers us a unique kind of sensitivity to the human memory.

  • Memory is the means by which most of us retain our sanity. The act of memory is good for people. Cathartic. Memory is the purgative by which we rid ourselves of the present.
  • ...if we've survived what we remember, then it's likely we will survive the present. Memory is a form of hope.
  • Still, a sad memory is better than none. It reminds you of survival.
  • Memory is making peace with time.
  • They say loss of memory is not to know who you are. Then, I suppose, it has to follow that we are what we remember.
  • And I remember and will move forward, as all children do, to the heartbeats of my mother. That remembrance is the rhythm of life. So memory is other people - it is little of ourselves.
  • Remembrance is more that honouring the dead. Remembrance is joining them - being one with them in memory. Memory is survival.

As many artists do, Findley explores the unity across ideas that are seemingly opposed. Memories of pain and suffering in one's life remind us of happiness and joy; memories of happiness and joy remind us of pain and suffering. If we are reminded of a past experience, then we are in another sense re-minded - our minds are literally re-made. If, as Findley says, we are in large part what we are in the present moment because our memories, then the idea of being re-minded means we can change who we are through what we choose to remember, or perhaps more accurately, how we choose to remember our experiences.

At the same time, memory is a way to purge ourselves of the present. It is a means to be reminded that we as human beings are more than the present moment. We find a sense of connection to the idea of therapeutic forgetting here, or forgetting to be confined by present circumstances.

Findley sees memory as part of the rhythm of living. And rhythm, like memory, is a fluid a flexible phenomenon. A life-enriching source of energy that is inseparable from the experiences we have in life. Memory resides in the present moment and the future as much as it does in reflection of the past.

The Idea of Thearpeutic Forgetting

The idea of having our parts of our memories erased, formerly the domain of science fiction, is becoming a medical reality. We are gaining the knowledge to tamper with memory as if it were a computer hard drive - the parts we don't want we drag to the trash. But aligning ideas of human memory with computer memory is a mistake. The two are fundamentally different.

What do we really understand about the experience of forgetting? The short answer is, "Not much." As noted in Wikipedia: Forgetting we do not have a clear explanation of it:

Forgetting (retention loss) is a spontaneous or gradual process in which old memories are deleted from the memory storage. It is subject to delicately balanced optimization that ensures that only the least relevant memories are deleted as well as it is a security process ensuring that dangerous information will not harm ourselves. Forgetting can be prevented by repetition and/or evaluation of the information. As we are examining this part of mind, this function of mind, we shouldn't forget that this is still not an exactly explained property of mind.

How the brain forgets, if it does, is not understood nor can it be explained. In other words, we are applying therapeutical techniques to a phenomenon we have little understanding of. In this context, we are trying to help people overcome pain and trauma via therapeutical forgetting without really knowing what it is. One of the most basic problems here is a problem that has characterized a great deal of science, and that problem is a lack of integrative and associative thinking. If the initial assumption about something is already narrow and confined, then the mountains of logical thinking and reason built on top of it will only be narrow and confined as well.

Surely there are habits, negative behaviors, and possibly deeply traumatic experiences we have had that we might wish to forget. Finding resolution to them is something we all naturally desire, but that resolution isn't about forgetting; it is about remembering or literally re-minding ourselves. Richard Restak makes a compelling argument for brain plasticity - or the idea that the brain literally chages itself based on the experiences we have and how we interpret those experiences. If we have suffered deep wounds inflicted by the unavoidable pain and suffering that is a fact of life, we would want to find ways of providing relief. But the notion of erasing these bad experiences, or therapeutic forgetting, seems far too simplistic. And, even if we could, how would we ever really be sure of what exactly it is we are erasing?

"The research community is divided on this issue. "I think there's an ethical concern," says Mark Barad, MD, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. "It's hard to estimate what's important about a memory, how the memory interacts with who we are, how it affects our ability to empathize."

I'm really not sure what there is to be divided on. No one likes to see another person suffer, but forgetting is not a way to benefit from suffering nor do I believe is it a way to resolve it. Imagine the technique of therapeutic forgetting in education. We could have standardized tests that measured how much we forgot. I can just imagine Therapeutic Forgetting Shops springing up right next to the Extreme Makeover Salons. Have a bad day? Stop in and have it erased. Need a makeover? Might be cheaper to go and forget what you look like. It's all bad science-fiction at best.

Human beings have an uncanny ability to effect changes in something with almost complete disregard for the consequences of those actions. Our degredation of our natural environment is a clear example of this tendency. Once damaged, we then try to fix it. If we erase something that resides in the brain, we are likely to set off a cascading effect across Candace Pert's bodymind, and there are likely to be consequences to those actions we do not expect.

The basic problem I see with the idea of therpeutic forgetting is that the assumptions made about memory and the brain are narrow and confined. Extending from this unsure foundation are potential actions and conclusions is a system of reasoning that may in fact be quite damaging. If we are to become more resilient in life, then we do not forget the problems and difficulties we find ourselves in. Instead, we accept them and move directly through the source of malcontent in order to learn and grow from experience. This is not a function of forgetting; it is a function of remembering and re-minding.

Memory and Learning

It is widely understood that learning plays a critical role in education and perhaps even more so in learning. However, all too often we assume that memory is merely a function of the brain and that function is simply to recall facts and data. This represents a debasement of human memory and defines it as something more akin to a computer than a human being.

The worst example of the human mind as data base is captured in the term rote learning. The idea of rote learning is that if something is repeated enough times it will be remembered, even if it is not understood. The metaphor for the brain here is the machine and the goal is to produce an automated type of reaction. Comprehension is not a requirement in rote learning. Not only does this term denigrate human memory, is also has little to do with learning. Perhaps training is a better word to associate with rote.

Do emotions influence memory? Of course they do. We can all recall the feeling of an experience we have had, yet may have more difficulty in providing a detailed description of a sequence of events for that same experience. Do our senses influence memory? Again, of course they do. We can all probably recall having a memory triggered by our sense of smell. Do our own unique experiences influence our memory? Obviously.

More importantly, memory is something that is always with us, in the present moment. We may typically think of memory as something we use to recall the past, but this only one way of understanding it. Memory is alive in the present moment and in our present actions.


Resources: Memory

  • Scirus: Human Memory
  • Wikipedia: Forgetting
  • WebMD: Forget Something? We Wish We Could
  • Wikipedia: Memory

Timothy Findley

  • Timothy Findley: CBC News Article
  • Timothy Findley: Library and Archives Canada
  • Timothy Findley: Canada's Walk of Fame
  • Timothy Findley: Athabasca University
  • Interview With Timothy Findley in January Magazine

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