April 11, 2008
The Great Forgetting
By DAVID BROOKS
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.
In the era of an aging population, memory is the new sex.
Society is now riven between the memory haves and the memory have-nots. On the one side are these colossal Proustian memory bullies who get 1,800 pages of recollection out of a mere cookie-bite. They traipse around broadcasting their conspicuous displays of recall as if quoting Auden were the Hummer of conversational one-upmanship. On the other side are those of us suffering the normal effects of time, living in the hippocampically challenged community that is one step away from leaving the stove on all day.
This divide produces moments of social combat. Some vaguely familiar person will come up to you in the supermarket. “Stan, it’s so nice to see you!” The smug memory dropper can smell your nominal aphasia and is going to keep first-naming you until you are crushed into submission.
Your response here is critical. You want to open up with an effusive burst of insincere emotional warmth: “Hey!” You’re practically exploding with feigned ecstasy. “Wonderful to see you too! How is everything?” All the while, you are frantically whirring through your memory banks trying to anchor this person in some time and context.
A decent human being would sense your distress and give you some lagniappe of information — a mention of the church picnic you both attended, the parents’ association at school, the fact that the two of you were formerly married. But the Proustian bully will give you nothing. “I’m good. And you?” It’s like trying to get an arms control concession out of Leonid Brezhnev.
Your only strategy is evasive vagueness, conversational rope-a-dope until you can figure out who this person is. You start talking in the tone of over-generalized blandness that suggests you have recently emerged from a coma.
Sensing your pain, your enemy pours it on mercilessly. “And how is Mary, and little Steven and Rob?” People who needlessly display their knowledge of your kids’ names are the lowest scum of the earth.
You’re in agony now, praying for an episode of spontaneous combustion. But still she drives the blade in deeper, “That was some party the other night wasn’t it?”
You lose vision. What party? Did you see this person at a party? By now, articulation is impossible. You are a puddle of gurgling noises and awkward silences. After the longest of these pauses, she goes for the coup de grâce: “You have no idea who I am, do you?”
You can’t tell the truth. That would be an admission of social defeat. The only possible response is: “Of course, I know who you are. You’re the hooker who hangs around on
14th Streetmost Saturday nights.”
The dawning of the Bad Memory Century will have vast consequences for the social fabric and the international balance of power. International relations experts will notice that great powers can be defined by their national forgetting styles. Americans forget their sins. Russians forget their weaknesses. The French forget that they’ve forgotten God. And, in the
Middle East, they forget everything but their resentments.
There will be new social movements and causes. The supermarket parking lots will be filled with cranky criminal gangs composed of middle-aged shoppers looking for their cars. As it becomes clear that a constant stream of blog posts and e-mails decimates the capacity for recall, people will be confronted with the modern Sophie’s choice — your BlackBerry or your mind.
Neural environmentalists will emerge from the slow foods movement, urging people to accept memory loss as a way to reduce their mental footprint. Meanwhile, mnemonic gurus will emerge offering to sell neural Viagra, but the only old memories the pills really bring back will involve trigonometry.
As in most great historical transformations, the members of the highly educated upper-middle class will express their suffering most loudly. It is especially painful when narcissists suffer memory loss because they are losing parts of the person they love most. First they lose the subjects they’ve only been pretending to understand — chaos theory, monetary policy, Don Delillo — and pretty soon their conversation is reduced to the core stories of self-heroism.
Their affection for themselves will endure through this Bad Memory Century, but their failure to retrieve will produce one of the epoch’s most notable features: shorter memoirs.
April 13, 2008
By GARY MARCUS
How much would you pay to have a small memory chip implanted in your brain if that chip would double the capacity of your short-term memory? Or guarantee that you would never again forget a face or a name?
There’s good reason to consider such offers. Although our memories are sometimes spectacular — we are very good at recognizing photos, for example — our memory capacities are often disappointing. Faulty memories have been known to lead to erroneous eyewitness testimony (and false imprisonment), to marital friction (in the form of overlooked anniversaries) and even death (sky divers have been known to forget to pull their ripcords — accounting, by one estimate, for approximately 6 percent of sky-diving fatalities). The dubious dynamics of memory leave us vulnerable to the predations of spin doctors (because a phrase like “death tax” automatically brings to mind a different set of associations than “estate tax”), the pitfalls of stereotyping (in which easily accessible memories wash out less common counterexamples) and what the psychologist Timothy Wilson calls “mental contamination.” To the extent that we frequently can’t separate relevant information from irrelevant information, memory is often the culprit.
All this becomes even more poignant when you compare our memories to those of the average laptop. Whereas it takes the average human child weeks or even months or years to memorize something as simple as a multiplication table, any modern computer can memorize any table in an instant — and never forget it. Why can’t we do the same?
Much of the difference lies in the basic organization of memory. Computers organize everything they store according to physical or logical locations, with each bit stored in a specific place according to some sort of master map, but we have no idea where anything in our brains is stored. We retrieve information not by knowing where it is but by using cues or clues that hint at what we are looking for.
In the best-case situation, this process works well: the particular memory we need just “pops” into our minds, automatically and effortlessly. The catch, however, is that our memories can easily get confused, especially when a given set of cues points to more than one memory. What we remember at any given moment depends heavily on the accidents of which bits of mental flotsam and jetsam happen to be active at that instant. Our mood, our environment, even our posture can all influence our delicate memories. To take but one example, studies suggest that if you learn a word while you happen to be slouching, you’ll be better able to remember that word at a later time if you are slouching than if you happen to be standing upright.
And it’s not just humans. Cue-driven memory with all its idiosyncrasies has been found in just about every creature ever studied, from snails to flies, spiders, rats and monkeys. As a product of evolution, it is what engineers might call a kluge, a system that is clumsy and inelegant but a lot better than nothing.
If we dared, could we use the resources of modern science to improve human memory? Quite possibly, yes. A team of
researchers, for example, has shown how a technique known as deep-brain stimulation can make small but measurable improvements by using electrical stimulation to drive the cue-driven circuits we already have. Toronto
But techniques like that can only take us so far. They can make memories more accessible but not necessarily more reliable, and the improvements are most likely to be only incremental. Making our memories both more accessible and more reliable would require something else, perhaps a system modeled on Google, which combines cue-driven promptings similar to human memory with the location-addressability of computers.
However difficult the practicalities, there’s no reason in principle why a future generation of neural prostheticists couldn’t pick up where nature left off, incorporating Google-like master maps into neural implants. This in turn would allow us to search our own memories — not just those on the Web — with something like the efficiency and reliability of a computer search engine.
Would this turn us into computers? Not at all. A neural implant equipped with a master memory map wouldn’t impair our capacity to think, or to feel, to love or to laugh; it wouldn’t change the nature of what we chose to remember; and it wouldn’t necessarily even expand the sheer size of our memory banks. But then again our problem has never been how much information we could store in our memories; it’s always been in getting that information back out — which is precisely where taking a clue from computer memory could help.
Gary Marcus, professor of psychology at New York University, is the author of “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.”