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Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Humans are experts in forgetting

A recent article in the Dutch Financial Times, mentioned this expression: humans are experts in forgetting. I must agree. I use two blog labels for my articles with a similar nature: the decline in Common Knowledge and History-Legends-Myths. There seems to be an (evolutionary?) advantage in forgetting. Why?

The more ordinary life’s events are, the quicker we forget. Sometimes, I cannot remember ordinary events within hours. The less ordinary, the longer you remember. Extraordinary (eg, life altering) events seem to last a lifetime (eg, break-ups, burnout, death, divorce). Our brain seems to use an algorithm for remembering, probably based on likelihood (of retrieval) and impact.

Hence, remembering events with a low likelihood (of retrieval) and a low impact seems irrational. Our brain's algorithm seems to push those memories to the fringes of our memory over time. For some memories, that timeframe may be hours; for others days or years. Probably, it should be possible to train your brain to keep remembering but why would you?

Some memories have a high likelihood of retrieval (ie, we often need remembering) and a high impact. Usually such memories were of an extraordinary nature. It makes sense that the algorithm in our brain needs and wants to remember these events for a lifetime.

Transferring extraordinary events (eg, pandemics, wars) to a next generation automatically gives a reduced likelihood and impact. Hearing, reading or viewing about such extraordinary events is very different from experiencing these events.

I suppose the 1st generational transfer of knowledge downgrades likelihood & impact from high to medium; a 2nd generational transfer further reduces likelihood & impact from medium to low. Hence, a full generational cycle goes from high to oblivion.

In this context, a full generational cycle would represent my grandparents, my parents (1930s), myself (1960), my children (1990s) and extraordinary events (eg, pandemics, WWII).

I suppose that memories with a high likelihood (of retrieval) and high impact may condition our behaviour (eg, fear, fight-flight-freeze). Hence, forgetting these events during a generational cycle is beneficial to us and thus an (evolutionary) advantage.

The current coronavirus pandemic might be a lesson for us about the cost of forgetting. The 1918 flu pandemic was largely forgotten, despite its mortality rate of some 10% (eg, my recent blogWired). The corona fatality rate is very high amongst senior citizens (my recent blog) but very low (< 1%) on average. Nature seems to have its own ways of wiping out memories.

“The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.” A quote by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), a German philosopher.

I Keep Forgettin' (1982) by Michael McDonald

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise.

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