Memory. By the time I write the next line, I may have forgotten what I wanted to say, or how I wanted to say it. And if I were to write about an event I witnessed or lived, whether in the remote or near past, I might not remember it exactly as I initially registered it, or as other witnesses recorded it. These imperfections of our memories are not uncommon–on the contrary, they are the norm. And yet, we rely on our memories of past events or experiences to make decisions to affect things in the present or in the future.
I have often wondered how this defect–or imperfection–affects the ability of a society to improve itself. Certainly, our memories should enable us to avoid errors of the past and make better decisions in the present to build a happier, healthier, freer future for all. And yet, that appears to not occur as often as we would like. And so, we repeat the mistakes of previous generations, making decisions which do not take into account the result of past legislation or decisions, and take social stances which are in direct conflict with historical facts:
- See the rise of the so-called populist movements along with the return of dictatorial regimes across the globe: This is made possible because, on the one hand,the majority of those living today do not have the factual or even the emotional memories of those who lived under such regimes in the past, and because the few who do are aged and no longer have the ability to affect change in our societies
- See also the spread of anti-vaccine movements which exist in part because we have either forgotten, do not remember or never lived in the pre-vaccination days when mortality and debilitating illnesses were rampant, even in first-world societies (the other cause being the lack of education, and the explosion of self-made experts thanks to social media, and whose posts go so wide that their viewers and readers are made to believe that the anecdotes related be these experts are in fact signs of epidemics or proper plagues)
Many have tried to understand and continue to investigate this lack of useful memory, and though there is no consensus, proximal (situational) as well as distal (anatomical and physiological) causes have been identified. Dr. Elizabeth Kensinger provides a good (though highly technical) summary of the causes in her article. To summarize her study, our recall of past events or experiences is influenced by 1) the event or experience having caused or not caused an emotional arousal, 2) the quality of the arousal (positive or negative), and 3) whether the person remembering an event was an actor or an observer. What this study and others suggest is that our memories are indeed imperfect, and unreliable. Not only that, but the emotion tied to past events and experiences also fade, and negative experiences fade more than positive ones, leading us to believe that “things were so much better then.” Dr. Markman explains well how this occurs (see article here). There may be another reason for this memory bias, and it is–according to me–that we remember the past more fondly because as youths we are not burdened by the daily struggles and annoyances of life (unless, however, one is born in a poor, unhealthy conditions). As we reach the teenage years, our view of the world is also affected by our belief that the world is ours to conquer, and our memories are consequently shaded more positively than they are for our parents or grandparents living those very same years. As we age, we are more greatly affected by the present worries and pains associated with raising families, making a living, or caring for our own or others’ illnesses. And during old age, we start reliving the excitement of our youths, but without remembering our own difficulties or those of the adults around us at the time–and we sigh, wishing we could go back to those earlier days, though life was probably much more difficult and painful then. This memory bias creates the false belief that many people have of things being better in the past (see article by Dr. Burd on “nostalgic preferences”), when in fact, the world is better today in many ways (see article here), though because we forget or do not have the lessons of the past present in our psyche, we may and will make decisions which will set us back.
It appears, then, that memory cannot help to improve our futures, and it is my belief that improvements to address prejudices, threats, and inequalities only come from actions in the present on the basis of extant and present “dangers.” But what if we lived longer, active lives–say a hundred and fifty years of two hundred years, years during which our view of the world is not biased by our childhood or adolescent dreams and carelessness, or by the daily pains of old age? And what if we found a way to prevent the fading of the memories formed during those years? These are both in the realm of possibilities for humans as medicine and bio-engineering continue to advance. Could we then use our memories more effectively to improve our decisions, actions, and laws? Could we then truly make use of the lessons of the past? This is a question that I decided to explore in my novel through the Lux Baiulae’s long lives and Memory Transfer ritual.