I just read an interesting article in the Atlantic about why we can’t remember most of what we read (or watch), something that, according to the article, has irritated people at least since Plato. I thought it was just me that had an issue with recollection. I still can’t accurately quote passages (or even lines) from books I’ve read half a dozen times. Sometimes I have trouble remembering a specific fact (like a name or date) right after I finish reading about it. The article explains that this happens because we’ve traded “recall” memory for “recognition” memory; in other words, we don’t remember details because we know we can look them up in an external memory bank (a book, DVD, or website, for example).
While it can be frustrating not to be able to recall something you just read, I can see a few advantages to favouring recognition memory (with external memory banks) over recall. A non-writing culture where stories are memorized and passed down verbally would be continuously at risk of losing those stories. All you need is a little chaos in the system to take the priority off memorizing or passing down information. Nobody is going to be thinking about passing on verbal traditions in the midst of a plague, war, or famine. Without a written record to preserve information, it can easily be lost forever.
When stories are passed down verbally, there’s also the ongoing risk of “broken telephone.” Over time and re-telling, parts will be changed or forgotten, in some cases, perhaps, deliberately, to suit the teller’s preferences. That can, of course, happen with books, as well. But with a book, there’s usually an early version to be found and consulted. You can’t ask someone long dead to recite you their version of a story.
On a personal level, it can actually be a good thing to forget a book you read and enjoyed. It gives you the opportunity to go back later and read it again “for the first time.” Maybe you’ll find the memories flooding back, making the re-reading experience something like a happy reunion. Or maybe you’ll really have forgotten, giving you the rare chance to enjoy it all over again, as if you’d never read the story before.
One line at the end of the Atlantic’s article leaves me feeling that the way our minds work is something quite lovely. While maybe it would be more convenient or impressive if memories were clean facts that could be extracted at will, the article states that instead, “all memories are everything.” Humans aren’t data banks. We aren’t discrete segments of information and experiences that can be added or deleted. We are made up of bits and pieces that merge together and form a whole. Everything we’ve read and seen and done is part of us, even if we can’t always dip into our memories and pull a piece out. That is wonderful and terrifying and so completely perfect. I don’t know about anyone else, but I wouldn’t trade that for perfect recall.
What do you think?