Modern Life and the Problem of Memory

Several days ago, I was on the way to Houston to teach and suddenly had a fear that I had forgotten to put deodorant on that morning!

(Luckily, I had put deodorant on, even though I never could retrieve that memory.)

And this got me to thinking: We have a lot to remember each day in 2018!

Take medications. Floss. Gas for the car. Check the mail. Charge the iPad. Return the text message. Pay that bill, and the other bill. Change the light bulb. Feed the cat. Use the coupon. Count the calories. Get enough sleep. Wake up on time. Schedule the followup. Fix the fence. Read the new book. 

And on and on.

Such constant to-dos pose significant strains on human memory…. and cause stress. The list only grows for people with bosses and/or professors and/or friends to satisfy. 

Humans have not adapted to the cruelties of Modern life.

“Modern” is one of those peculiar words that has such an array of definitions it has long been problematic. For purposes here, I use it to refer to the historical era dating from roughly 1450 with the slow rose of the State, the city, and industrialism. I also use it to refer to life now and over the last few decades.

Prior to capitalism (see, What is Capitalism, if not Bureaucracy) and industrialism, life was not as dangerous or stressful (especially if you ask Michel Foucault). People had much less to remember when 98 percent of the population dedicated their efforts to farming and being as independent as possible. Certainly there were plenty of things to remember and keep track of, but these were a natural part of the everyday rhythm of life and were much more specifically tied to survival. Modernity and capitalism constantly create new necessities — people went without deodorant for hundreds of thousands of years — and new things to remember!

All humans suffer from such limitations of memory. And all of this is on top of how poorly humans can process and understand the world around them and their own thoughts. We have people who only process a tiny percent of what occurs around them, who only grasp a tiny percent of their own thoughts and actions, yet who are expected/required to remember never-ending ever-growing responsibilities.

These thoughts I am having only further confirm how unnatural Modern education is when it involves mere memorization. And no wonder students have trouble remembering what we tell them. 

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda