Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Importance of Forgetting

Susan Greenfield is a lady to whose opinions I'm inclined to pay attention. In a recent ABC Talking Heads interview with Peter Thompson, she came out with a question that laid bare the entire problem with a lot of the transhumanist philosophy.

From the transcript:

PETER THOMPSON: This is the perfect forum to kick around big ideas in science and philosophy - like ethics.

BARONESS SUSAN GREENFIELD: Indeed.

PETER THOMPSON: Given the amazing advances of science and the mind-

BARONESS SUSAN GREENFIELD: Well, there's several- let's restrict that question to the brain sciences, because there are many, but these are the ones that concern me. One would be so-called transhumanism, which someone has described as the world's most dangerous idea. Transhumanism is the notion that you can enhance your physical and mental powers beyond the norm. So you could take, let's say, a cognitive enhancer, a pill that allegedly - although I'm very sceptical about this - gave you a better memory.

PETER THOMPSON: What's wrong with that?

BARONESS SUSAN GREENFIELD: Why would you want to do that?

PETER THOMPSON: Well, I can think of good ideas why I'd like to enhance my memory - cos I'd remember more!

BARONESS SUSAN GREENFIELD: OK, well, why do you want to remember more?

PETER THOMPSON: Because I forget.

BARONESS SUSAN GREENFIELD: Might not forgetting be an important thing, in that you can remember the things that are important to you?

PETER THOMPSON: But I forget things that are important to me.

BARONESS SUSAN GREENFIELD: Usually, things that are important have more connections, and therefore they're more robust. But, for example, if you take Einstein and Beethoven and Shakespeare, let's say. All of them had fantastic brains - agree?

PETER THOMPSON: Mm-hm.

BARONESS SUSAN GREENFIELD: And what did they have in common? Was it a good memory? No. Surely the best brain of all is your brain, your diverse, individual brain...

Since I am, because of my emortalist predilections, with at least a toe in the transhumanist camp—though I refuse to put even one whole foot into it, because there's too many dodgy characters in there—I realized again that the right questions, not answers, are what counts. And this led to other thoughts; and, besides, I've been thinking along similar lines for quite some time now. There's also the eponymous character from The Storyteller, of course, who is over 800 years old; and what about his memory? It's an issue Heinlein at least touched on in his immortalist opus, Time Enough For Love, but not in depth.

Greenfield though, with her question to Peter Thomspon, triggered the obvious next step in the chain of reasoning, and it is this: the deficiency of our memory may be the factor that determines how we judge the importance of things.

Said deficiency is, of course, a direct result of brain structure. Even in a perfectly healthy brain, not subject to the ravages of aging/disease, there will be memory loss. Though some may appear to exhibit amazing recall compared to the average, it's still true that they, too, forget things. They're just different things.

Furthermore, consider this. Everything our mind does—assuming that the 'brain' is all there is to the 'mind'; a moot point, as I'll be the first to admit—basically happens because of the same physiological mechanisms. So, whatever drives 'memory'—and I don't even want to get into what memory actually 'is', but in this discussion it doesn't matter—is also the same thing that drives, say, decision-making.

Decision-making is critically dependent on a graded system of priorities. Decisions are driven by what, in any given context or instant, is the thing, or the complex of things, considered to be of the highest priority. In physiological terms, the processes are almost indistinguishable. If they don't happen in different areas of the brain, we could not tell apart whether at any given moment someone makes a decision or recalls the set of memories that are most important in making it.

Think of it this way, and without reference to neurology or scientific jargon. Something I see almost everyday is people overtaking others along the highway, often with more than just 'reckless' disregard to the possible consequences. I've seen things driving to and from home that would make your hair stand on end. Now, in order to make a decision to overtake someone under given traffic conditions, one has to make an, implicit or explicit, assessment of a whole hierarchy of priorities, which will combine into and eventual 'go' or 'no go'. In the case of a situation that's potentially lethal for the driver and the car's occupants, not to speak of other road users, we can think of this as:
  • Either, the driver considering that his main goals are being a macho or femo-macho asshole, showing off, getting there faster, etc.
  • Or, the driver considering the potentially lethal aspect of the situation being too great, decides not overtake after all.
One can also rephrase this as saying that either the driver forgets that his or her survival is actually more important than being an showing off; or that they remember that survival is actually the most important thing of all.

Of course, the decisions are more complex than that, but these are sketches of significant elements. There's no doubt that if you remember that survival is the prerequisite for anything else that'll ever happen to you—the bad and the good—then you are unlikely to do anything that will jeopardize it. I know this to be true, because that's how I make my overtaking decisions. Meaning that the memory of the need to survive is equivalent to deciding the hierarchy of priorities involved in my decision making process.

The decay of unimportant memories, whatever 'unimportant' means, in a normal human brain is not only 'natural' but essential. An emortal, like the eponymous Storyteller, who doesn't forget almost everything but the most important in his past life, would effectively be unable to function. There are people who are made utterly unable to function because they are unable to create hierarchies of priorities of importance. I forgot what the disorder is called, but surely it must be one of the most crippling imaginable. To remember everything equally clearly. To be able to see the full range of possible choices of decision-making. And yet, not to be able to use this to actually decide or choose. How horrific would that be?

If you think further on this you'll also realize that ultimately the same process is involved in learning, because learning isn't just acquisition of data about facts and procedures, but it's also about, and possibly mostly so, the use of these data. And it is involved in what you might call 'personal change', which wouldn't be possible without our apparently deficient memory.

Those who cannot forget, or tone down the importance in their lives of their memories, will remain the same. They will also become progressively more unable to look forward to the future.

I remain fascinated by Greenberg's statement: ...Einstein and Beethoven and Shakespeare... All of them had fantastic brains... And what did they have in common? Was it a good memory? No.

I'm wondering, maybe...is there possibly some kind of inverse correlation between creativity and the quality of memory?

Maybe someone could do some research into that.

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