Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Programmed amnesia

No one remembers being in the womb, even though research indicates that fetuses have memory.  This selective amnesia seems hard-wired, suggesting that evolutionary pressure made it advantageous not to remember gestation.  Why?

Similarly, no one remembers being a baby, though all the evidence indicates that babies have memory. Why are no baby memories saved?  Could it be that the transitions from womb to babyhood and from babyhood to toddler jump chasms too wide to translate?

In a related vein, a Darwinian might surmise that proto-humans who remembered the womb went mad from grief and confusion, and toddlers who remembered babyhood did the same.  The "fittest" were those who forgot.

Researchers have discovered a third programmed amnesia at age seven, when a child's brain undergoes a culling of the previous six years of memory.  Unlike the total blockades of memory before birth and between birth and age one, this third event deletes some memory but not all.  No one knows the criteria for remembering or forgetting, why the amnesia occurs at age seven or what its purpose is.

After learning about the seventh year amnesia, I reviewed my memories from age two through seven.  The memories that caught my attention were the ones of my father being furious at me because I had done something hostile, like spreading mud over the exterior of his new Studebaker, which he loved, or opening bags of baking powder that he stored in the Studebaker (part of a sales job to help him through pharmacy school) and methodically pouring powder over all the upholstered surfaces.  I remember doing those things, and I remember my dad's fury, but I do not remember why I did them, what I was thinking or feeling at the time.  Were the memories of my motivation censored by my own brain?  Why? To protect me from some view of myself?  What view?  Do I want to know?

Humanity practices political amnesia, in which amnesia spreads, often deliberately, via social groups rather than genetics.  For example, when one culture dominates and/or destroys another, humans don't want to remember the culture that was destroyed, at least not in uncensored versions.  The state helps by programing amnesia.  In Stalinist Russia people were not allowed to tour the tsar's palaces.  They needed to forget those palaces and a culture that often dazzled.  One of the Dutch party that first interacted with natives on Manhattan Island reported that the native population were clean, healthy, sane, well built and comely, not filthy, sick, crazy and deformed like people the reporter had seen in European cities.  That report has gone missing in state approved textbooks and almost everywhere else.  No one wants to remember it.

There are cycles of amnesia in our long-term evolution as well.  We have forgotten what human life was like before we adopted agriculture, only 10,000 years ago.  If it weren't for a few fragments of bone and clay, and some vague myths, we wouldn't know we had lived in small tribes as hunter gatherers.  We have evidence about our diet and use of materials, but we don't remember what it felt like to be human for those hundreds of thousands of years.  

Humanity is about to undergo another mass amnesia.  One hundred years from now, there might not be more than a handful of people in the world who've heard of Shakespeare, or the Roman Empire, or any of today's nation-states.  It could be the "end of history" we've been hearing about.  Genetic engineering, AI and machine/human interface will create a new humanity that will not understand much about the old one, except that it was primitive and should be discarded and forgotten.  

Today, as if to expedite the process, we are researching drugs that will delete "traumatic" memories, in a bid perhaps to keep pace with our bionic offspring, whose memories will be added and deleted by coders.  The current flooding of quasi-legal marijuana into all levels of Western society seems part of the trend, as the latest research on THC, the active ingredient, suggests it functions by limiting short-term memory (if further research on marijuana is legalized, it should ponder why limiting short-term memory produces a "high").

How should we react to the coming mass amnesia?  We might as well fight it, don't you think?  By "fight it" I don't mean keep it from happening.  I mean, let's inject some memory into the future, while we can.