There was a long piece by Phil Hogan in Sunday’s Observer on memory loss and how to avoid it. He travels to San Francisco to find out about the latest neurological insights into how memory works and what happens in our brain when it fails. Then he goes to New York to watch the finals of the (rather awful sounding ) Memory Championships.
Two things struck me:
One was that the scientists he spoke to were clear that there was little or no evidence of generalisable improvements in cognitive capacity from the sort of brain training that the Memory Champions advocated.
That’s pretty important given how much of this stuff people are trying to flog us.
Second was this comment from Professor Alan Baddeley at York University
‘Forgetting is very useful. You’d be in a mess without it, like being without the garbage man. The memory encodes things so that, on the whole, you can get hold of what’s important and the things you need most often. Forgetting is a very well-designed aspect of that.’
We’re so used to thinking about forgetting as the failure of memory that we forget just how valuable it is. Perhaps we should think of it not simply as ‘not remembering’ but as a positive value in its own right.
I’m not familiar with the science in this area but I was reminded of the Borges story ‘Funes the Memorious’. After being thrown from a horse the eponymous Funes finds his memory is infallible, but this is more curse than blessing. As the narrator says of him:
“I suspect, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details.”
Dementia and senility are terrible afflictions and we should welcome the extent to which modern neuroscience promises to mitigate and eventually overcome them, though this is still sadly limited. But in pursuing this essential goal we should not be fooled into seeing memory itself as simple benefit.
As Borges reminds us, “The truth is that we all live by leaving behind”.