Sunday, April 13, 2008

David Brooks writes in his column, in the New York Times :

They say the 21st century is going to be the Asian Century, but, of course, it’s going to be the Bad Memory Century. Already, you go to dinner parties and the middle-aged high achievers talk more about how bad their memories are than about real estate. Already, the information acceleration syndrome means that more data is coursing through everybody’s brains, but less of it actually sticks. It’s become like a badge of a frenetic, stressful life — to have forgotten what you did last Saturday night, and through all of junior high….

Society is now riven between the memory haves and the memory have-nots….
As one of the have-nots, I can understand what David Brooks is trying to say, With the finite RAM size of our brains and with more data coursing through relentlessly, the only option is to develop the ability to selectively forget the past. A neural program must be developed which would do some ‘housekeeping’ of the brain and send unwanted data to the recycle bin, to be permanently deleted if kept in storage for more than 48 hours. Aspects of the past which we find painful or useless can be picked out for disposal.

In the nineteenth century, writers and philosophers seem to have explored this theme of ‘forgetting’ in some detail. In his book, the Haunted Man, Charles Dickens has a Professor of Chemistry, Redlaw, being given the gift of forgetting ‘sorrow, wrong and troubles in his life”. With the painful incidents of the past removed from memory, Professor Redlaw experiences inexplicable anger and bitterness, and the moral of the story is explained as “it is important to remember past sorrow and wrongs, so that you can forgive the wrong-doer and unburden your soul from the misery”. Otherwise, you end up unbalanced and filled with emptiness.

That’s typical nineteenth-century drivel. If he were to write the story now, Dickens will have the Professor re-inforcing his memory cells with vivid description of the wrong-doer, so that he will not forget to have his revenge. While cluttering his brain with such trivia, the Professor will not be able to remember what he did on Saturday night….