Memory (and Forgetting)

The advertising slogan of Eastman Kodak, the now bankrupt photographic film company, was “we capture your memories forever.” How ironic. Paul Simon may have sung “preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you” (Old Friends) but like multinational companies, memories are not forever, they do not last. The more we know about how we form and preserve memories, the more transitory and fleeting nature of memory has become.

What if memory was more comprehensive, reliable and permanent? What if we could regain the power of memory that is so crucial to oral cultures?

In The Art of Memory (1966) Frances Yates explores the techniques of “artificial memory” that enabled the Greeks (and other oral cultures) to remember and transmit the epic stories and extensive ideas that formed the basis of their history and culture. We no longer trust memory; we no longer have the skills to use memory effectively.

Through visible language we have externalized memory. Writing systems have relieved us of the need to memorize and to develop systems of memory. We have outsourced that requirement.

We can improve short term memory with pharmaceuticals like Ritalin (methylphenidate), and other nootropics. With associative techniques it is possible remember, temporarily, surprising long and random lists. Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011) provides an entertaining account of this. While all these may be useful for examinations and party tricks, it is not so helpful if the goal is to extend human capacity deeply and for the long term.

Unlike Kodak’s photographs, memories are not unchanging pictures. They are much more dynamic, highly contextual, prone to error, and changeable with use:

“Your memory of something is only as good as your last memory of it.” (Joseph Ledoux in Brockman, What have you changed Your Mind About? 2009)

This is because the brain modifies that memory each time it is recalled; sometimes adding, sometimes subtracting. Our memories are fluid not static Some memories are sustained for a lifetime, others fade after days or weeks. What if we could remember everything? What if those memories could be shared or transferred?

Since 1998 Gordon Bell, professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a former Vice President at Digital Equipment Corporation, has been “life-logging.” He is recording and capturing everything he does, says, views, reads, and interacts with. Or at least as much as the current technology will allow. The MyLifeBits project is a proof of concept for “e-memory:”

“Biological memory is subjective, patchy, emotion-tinged, ego-filtered, impressionistic, and mutable. Digital memory is objective, dispassionate, prosaic, and unforgivingly accurate.” (Bell and Gemmell. Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything, 2009)

It will not surprise you to know that Bell is an engineer.

E-memory is about extending our memory through advanced technologies, most of which are already available. Although Bell’s book is called Total Recall, it is as much about intergeneration transmission as it is about a personal memory aid. He wants to remember things now, but perhaps more urgently, we wants to make his memories available to his descendents.

For a critique of life-logging, listen to Nora Young’s interview (CBC Spark) with Abigail Sellen, a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research.

Bell and Gemmell make the connection to alphabetic literacy quite explicit:

“We look back at the ages before the advent of writing as ‘pre-history.’ The next generation will look back on our era as pre-Total Recall.”

Bell’s technology enabled memory enhancement is intended to augment our limited biological capacity. However, apparently that capacity isn’t as limited as we think. While it is a complete fable that we only use 10% of our brain, we can certainly use our brain (and memory) differently.

Hyperthymesia is the condition or capacity that allows people to remember the vast majority of things and events in their lives. There are two characteristics of people with this circumstance:

“1) the person spends an abnormally large amount of time thinking about his or her personal past, and 2) the person has an extraordinary capacity to recall specific events from his or her personal past.” (Parker et al. “A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering”, 2006)

Jill Price (known as “AJ” in the Parker study) is diagnosed with hyperthymesia. She refers to her capability as a “burden” which is “non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting.” The case of Solomon Shereshevsky is slightly different. This is documented by A. R. Luria, the Russian neuropsychologist, in The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory (1968) where Shereshevsky is referred to as “S”.

While Price remembers her past completely she is actually very poor at memorizing things. Shereshevsky, however, was exceptional at memorization, retaining vast amounts of information many years later.

Brad Williams, also determined to have hyperthymesia, calls himself the “human Google” and seems less troubled by his ability:

“I never feel overwhelmed with the amount of information my brain absorbs. My mind seems to be able to cope and the information is stored away neatly.”
(Interview with Williams in the Globe and Mail December 27, 2011)

The trailer for Unforgettable (2010), a film about Williams, illustrates his ability and the personal notoriety this has generated.

Is hyperthymesia a disease or a neurological malformation? Or is it simply a desirable capacity the rest of us have not be able to develop?

The extraordinary ability of Stephen Wiltshire to draw complex cityscapes from memory is another example of how the mind takes in voluminous amounts of information and how it can also retrieve and make sense of it all:

Bell and Gemmell suggest that the availability such memory recall will lead not to information overload but in fact will address one of the negative effects of too much information: lack of ability to reflect:

“Just as the World Wide Web enabled an era of increased research. Total Recall will enable an era of increased reflection.”

Because we can spend less time and mental effort recovering information, we can spend more time thinking about it and reflecting on it. The result is not overload but deep introspection.

The idea of remembering everything inevitably raises the issue of forgetting.

Forgetting is important. Not remembering protects us against many things, from embarrassing moments to traumatic events. Digital technologies make forgetting difficult:

“Since the beginning of time, for us humans, forgetting has been the norm and remembering the exception … Today, with the help of widespread technology, forgetting has become the exception, and remembering the default.” (Mayer-Schonberger, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, 2009)

Mayer-Schonberger, in calling for “digital abstinence” and “the right to informational self-determination”, is asking that the ability to forget be embedded in new technologies. That forgetting, if not the default, is at least made easier. The legal framework raised by Mayer-Schonberger reminds us of Gordon Bell’s observation that laws will likely have to be enacted to prevent the digital self from testifying against the actual self.

Improving or expanding memory, in the manner produced by nootropics, enabled by Bell’s MyLifeBits, or experienced by those with hyperthymesia, is about “natural” memories. These are memories formed in the old fashioned way. They are still intimately connected to alphabetic literacy. What about synthetic memory? What about creating, manipulating and inducing memories that are completely artificial to the individual?


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