May 10, 2008

Is perfect memory a blessing or curse?

This book looks interesting: The Woman Who Can't Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living with the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science--A Memoir.

The book's author, Jill Price, has a condition called "hyperthymestic syndrome" -- the continuous, automatic and perfect recollection of the minutiae of every day life. Price claims to be able to remember virtually every detail of her life since the age of 14.

It's apparently the first known diagnosis of this condition (although I once read an account of a Russian woman with perfect memory who had trouble distinguishing present from past -- not sure if this story is true or not, but it brings up an interesting concern).

Transhumanists who are envious of such an ability (myself included) should be aware that there may be trade-offs. According to the book description:
As we learn of Jill's struggles first to realize how unusual her memory is and then to contend, as she grows up, with the unique challenges of not being able to forget -- remembering both the good times and the bad, the joyous and the devastating, in such vivid and insistent detail -- the way her memory works is contrasted to a wealth of discoveries about the workings of normal human memory and normal human forgetting. Intriguing light is shed on the vital role of what's called "motivated forgetting"; as well as theories about childhood amnesia, the loss of memory for the first two to three years of our lives; the emotional content of memories; and the way in which autobiographical memories are normally crafted into an ever-evolving and empowering life story.
Indeed, imagine reliving every argument you ever had with a partner, or all the super-embarrassing moments of your life. And imagine never being able to 'leave' your past life stages such as your teenage years. Would you be able to truly mature and move on? "It is hard to grow up," Price says, "when you are always walking beside yourself."

So, would we want to be able to relive all memories in exquisite detail?

Given the choice I would still say yes.

I find the limitations of human memory infuriating. Not having control over which memories are stored and how they are recalled is an upsetting cognitive limitation. It's as if our subconscious mind is writing our own personal history in spite of us.

Our memories often present a narrative of events that may not be objectively accurate; most of our memories are lost, and those that are retained tend to have the subjective taint of some kind of emotional association (mostly negative). In other words, we can't have complete confidence in how we interpret our memories.

As for the emotional baggage, my feeling is that this concern is overstated. We involuntarily choose to remember the negative over the positive anyway, so I'm not convinced that a whole lot would change. Personally, I'd love to be able to recall some of the more thrilling and meaningful moments of my life with greater clarity.

And the point about not being able to leave our 'past selves' behind, again I have a feeling this is exaggerated. For me, maturation and personal development comes with the accumulation of experiences, not from any sense of distance from our previous selves.

So count me in for when perfect memory finally becomes medically possible.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're on reddit, in the cogsci section. (My url is a link)

You have a bunch of comments there, including mine.