February 13, 2012

Slate on enhancing memory

Evan Selinger of Slate asks, "How will life change if we can’t forget anything?" Selinger quotes me as an advocate for enhanced memories:
Transhumanists like George Dvorsky are holding out for perfect memories, or total recall: “Count me in for when perfect memory finally becomes medically possible,” he has written. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but this sounds terrible. The ability to forget allows us to forgive (“time heals all wounds”) as the pain of memories fades. It also allows us to make difficult, but important life-altering decisions. Ethicist Justin Weinberg suggests perfect recall of the pain of childbirth and the tortures of new-parent sleep deprivation could impact reproduction. More than a century ago, Nietzsche speculated that active forgetting is the key to living a life unencumbered by resentment. Today, scientists concur. Memory is seen as a creative “means for endlessly rewriting the self.”

Luckily for me (but not Dvorsky), perfect recollection isn’t close to being feasible. Drugs and surgery aren’t there yet, nor are digital means.
Here's the full quote from my article:
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.


natalie said...

Hmm, seems the slate article missed the nuance of selective memory. I would love the ability of perfect memory with the option to pick and choose what I want to avoid, forget, store for easy recall, and archive for just-in-case. I think of it much like my email inbox. There's lots of junk that I don't care to ever see, so I filter those things into spam or trash so I'm never even bothered by them. Then there are some messages that I can't plan for that are undesirable or upset me and I wish I could forget about and move on. Then everything that I want to remember falls into the categories of being useful and need to know now or save for later.

The thought I wrestle with is will we be able to hold on to the lessons we learn from situations that we choose to forget? And can we design our experiences so that we avoid pain without losing the inherent opportunity for personal growth--how do you minimize the former while maximizing the latter? Can the benefit of the lost negative experience be at least equally matched in a positive way?

Max C said...

His concern about the pain of childbirth hindering reproduction is ridiculous for a slew of reasons. Just for example, there are plenty of ways to lessen pain or avoid it completely.

Even if he turned out to be correct, how great would it be if an already over-extended planet had a somewhat lower birth-rate?

Anonymous said...

Perfect memory for me means that I have control over my memory. I can retrieve the information I want at the time that I want.
The way it works at present is that our subconscious mind decides what to put into our conscious mind. This also applies to the bad memories. That's why we hope to forget them sometime. They happen to drag us down and we simply can't get them out of our conscious minds if the subconscious mind doesn't allow it.
We have ways to influence this, but they are crude. Like starting MS Word a 100 times in a row to tell Windows that it should allocate more resources to that task . I hope that one day we will have full control over our subconscious mind. That way be may be able to achieve performances like those of the so called idiot savants but without the bad sides.