The endangered power of forgetting


To forget or not to forget. But what?

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Our memories shape how we understand the world, imagine what may happen and what to do about it. Our brains continously change our memories, forgetting or altering details over time. What happens when technology alters that process, inside everybody’s brains, in just a few years?

Remember? Remember what? For whom?

Researchers have found that constant photo taking and sharing photos with smartphones does not necessarily make us forgetful, or dumber. But it may change how we recall events in our own lives.

To begin with, smartphone photography changes what we notice, by focusing attention on the purely visual parts of our experiences. In addition to that, sharing pictures may alter memory “in a subtle but profound way”.

Taking pictures just to share them on WhatsApp, Telegram or social media makes us more likely to remember that moment from a third-person perspective. Does this perspective shift change “the way we think about our lives years down the line”?

Research also confirms that “intentional memory making takes some effort”. But it turns out that, understand how we remember (and do it well), we must also understand how, and why, we forget.

Remember? Why?

Until about ten years ago, most researchers thought that forgetting was a passive process in which some memories just decay for lack of use.

Newer studies suggest, instead, that the brain is built to forget. Forgetting, that is, would be the default, a constantly active function of the brain: “To have proper memory function, you have to have forgetting.”

The reason why the brain would be wired to forget is evolutionary success: if the surrounding environment always changes, being able to overwrite old data with fresh ones “helps to adapt to new situations”.

In practice, the brain’s ability to “engage in controlled forgetting” helps generalize across dangerous or painful experiences, thus making them easier to recognize and avoid similar ones in the future. People who can remember every detail of their lives, instead, “seem to have an increased tendency for obsessiveness”. In synthesis:

  • Memory “endowes us with knowledge about the world, and then updates that knowledge”
  • Forgetting enables us both as individuals, and as a species, to move forwards.

If the brain is wired to forget…

Smartphones, said researchers, encourage us to continuously take pictures “from (or FOR???) a third person perspective”. It is trivial to conclude that this fuels insecurity, but what is interesting is matching this “perspective shift” with the “wired to forget” research.

Smartphone make it impossible to alter memories. And this is not limited to photographs. When lovers or friend scream at each other, their own memories of each detail of that row lose sharpness over time, and so does any “report” of that row made to third parties. When every single word of that row can be quickly frozen and shared with a screenshot, it becomes impossible to forget details, or realize that some were irrelevant. Ditto for online discussions. Argue in pub, and very often sleeping over it will be enough to not care anymore. Argue in writing, on Facebook, and the next time you log in everything is there exactly as before.

If the brain needs to forget, what happens when endless selfies don’t just make you more insecure but PREVENT your brain from “forgetting all details”?

Maybe you do not “move forwards”. Maybe you become more obsessive. Maybe you have problems to take things easily, to shrug off what is irrelevant, as a mature adult would do. Maybe you call out everybody everything around you. Does all this sound familiar?

What that new research implies is that maybe the main, real problem of pairing of smartphones with social media that collect behavior is not that it makes it easier to be unsecure, or overlook lots of things. It is not that it continuously show totally unrealistic “realities”. It is not even distraction.

It is simply that it makes it much harder to forget many other things. It is simply that smartphones and social media freeze the memories in your brain, making you unable to grow and forgive.

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CAPTION: Unavoidable final quote on the enormous power of forgetting

IMAGE CREDIT: “please forget me” sculpture by mr clement

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