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 



Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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21 replies

  1. I learned at an early age that if we want to be able to remember something better, we have to “run associations.” That is not far from what the brain actually does to put things into long-term memory. Memorization of items only gets them to short-term memory. So, no wonder students walk into the next level course on a subject and seem to have to start all over again. They get no chance to develop perspective on something because it takes associations to develop perspective.

    Association is what the nervous system was built to work with. A cell is assigned a role in the brain’s normal processing of information. A group of cells signal each other. That group of cells have all gotten their roles assigned to them when we learn to associate something with another thing. We do that naturally when we want to recall an event. Such an event is made of many parts, each assigned to a different cell. Associations are formed by developing links with each other. Then, when the brain wants to work faster to develop a response to a similar event, it calls on the association of these cells to respond. Then there are associations of associations, ad infinitum.

    So every student can learn to assign associations by linking one lecture to the one before it, in as many ways as possible, and even including something as odd as the feel of your posture in that previous lecture, or the clothing you wore. The associations seem disparate, but still work. That is why people develop new links when they want to remember someone’s name. One of my students was ROTC and I llinked his name, Aaron, with “straight as an arrow, Aaron.” Yeah, he was very straight, but mostly in posture. Pretty soon you do not need the odd links to remember the event. Making every test depend a bit on a previous chunk of material would strongly encourage students to make those associations anew every time they study for the next test. Only with practice does it become automatic.

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    • Yes, those links! I try to get my students to think in terms of “neural networks” – they learn and remember without “trying” when they build connections with other knowledge. But, it’s a process that takes time. People often say I have an outstanding, crazy memory. I do remember what I did and when, what I read, but I do so, usually, by making associations. I also have a very good visual memory. I have learned that if I create a strong mental image of doing something (such as putting my clothes in the dryer after grading a batch of essays) I am much more likely to remember.

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  2. Ah, great minds run in …..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Is it me, or am I the only one who has to make a (paper LOL) list to remember things, to make an outline to follow for a lecture, to keep a (paper again!) prayer list to remember who asked you to pray for them, for their family, for special requests? There is a lot to keep in the old memory bank, and so much tries to crowd into it. Did I give Lena her medicine this morning or not? (My safest solution if I just can’t remember is to give her another (or the first) dose at the end of the evening. She’s supposed to take it twice a day, but the vet will take once a day, considering how hard she is to catch! LOL Even in remembering, there are compromises…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Same here, Dr. Pegoda. The worst happens when my computer fails to boot up like last year when my motherboard needed to be replaced. Boy am I lost then!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The concept that this blog addresses is something that occasionally surfaces in my thoughts, only to be pushed off by a responsibility or task that I am to perform as a modern day contributor to society. Not even including educational weekly duties, the list of meaningless to-do’s only grows as we get older. Even though these particular obligations do not have due dates, they still hold a wavering anxiety over you if you do not do them in the time that is socially normal to do them.

    This can refer to day-to-day activities, as small as brushing your teeth or putting on deodorant. The list of these types of daily activities is not only unending, but only continues to expand across the board, whether it be socially, personally, or communal. Affected by environment and society, this can range from person to person. Artificial influences from the outside are constantly distracting me from my productive thoughts, thus further dampening my use of memory for the significant matter that I would rather put my time and energy towards. The seemingly instinctual thought process disguises itself as continuous reminders of the next little thing that we need to do in order to fulfill the itinerary as a social member. Individual social constructs take full control of our memory, thus our minds, only furthering to dictate the actions we take throughout our day. Since these surface every day, it only seems normal to let these dictate our actions or else we feel lost, or worse, a social outcast.

    A question that I find hard to answer is “how do we change this in ourselves?”. If we want to change this then simply ignore the tasks and responsibilities that build up over a week. This, however, only creates more anxiety. So how are we to change this consuming mindset that dictates our every thought and action without leaving society and joining a convent. By taking small steps towards directing how you choose to use your memorization by addressing, or ignoring, certain thoughts could benefit your mindset in the long run while lessening the anxieties that society non consensually implements on you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You give a really thoughtful reply here. I remember the California commercial where a man who came to work one day with a brand new suit from a famous men’s clothing store evoked a lot of compliments by his fellow workers about how good he looked that day. He responded it was because of his new suit. They all said, oh, no it can’t be that. One asked him to remove his jacket. He did and suddenly they were all responding negatively (“EEEWWWWW”) to him. It was definitely a very effective commercial because it was so funny.

      Some people are not so fearful of negative social responses to our “forgetting” to do some basic things. One thing I realized early in life was how people become convinced by commercials that if you do not take a shower, wash your hair, put on deodorant and brush your teeth every day, you will be rejected by others very quickly. That is just not the case, but humans are so bound to social connection that it might take a lot of convincing evidence to ease that anxiety. I will address the anxiety you might feel if you forget your full morning hygiene routine with a little biology.

      I heard on The Doctors (CBS) that we do not have to wash our hair even once a week. One woman guest said it had been about 15 days since she washed her hair. One doctor sniffed her hair and remarked, “No it doesn’t smell bad. It just smells like sebum,” referring to the oil produced by sebaceous glands distributed all over our skin. I learned how important those glands are about 5 years ago. I am getting rid of toxins that got stored in my bones when my mother tried to kill me by exposing me to them every day for the first 2.5 years of my life. So far it has taken about 10 years, mainly because these toxins are so strongly associated with emotional memory that I have to address healing from both at the same time, and it also takes time to train the brain to do what I have been able to do.

      Interstitial fluid travels in the acupuncture meridians, going up the back to the top of the head and then down the front of the body. So do the toxins when they come out of the bones or get introduced into your body. They got stronger and stronger over the years because the body concentrates them by removing water from the bones. So I learned how damaging they were to sebaceous and other glands only when i lost them in my scalp when some really bad toxins were coming out of my skull and other bones.

      I usually only wash my hair once a week because my hair is long and takes too much time to dry. So I fell asleep that night after getting my hair dry. The next morning it was completely in knots. I worked on it for 3 hours and only discovered that I was losing more hair that way than not working on it. I had washed all sebum out of my hair, and my glands had been so damaged by the toxins that they ceased working. That oil keeps your hair from knotting up. It doesn’t matter if you use a conditioner because sebum is what keeps your hair from knotting up. Other oils will not do this. It is still knotted up today because I am still getting rid of toxins from other bones, and they all travel up to the top of the head with all interstitial fluids inside the acupuncture meridians. And no, I do not have to wash it (although I did recently and am facing enormously fly-away hair because it was too soon) because sebum and sweat collecting dirt makes your hair dirty. Both got damaged by the toxins. Some of the edges of my scalp have started to heal sebaceous and sweat glands because the hair there is pulling out of knots and staying out of knots. So my experiment is working.

      If you are not producing oils then you will not collect dirt. It takes some moisture on your skin to do that. If either sweat or sebaceous glands are damaged, you may not end up having any body odor at all. However, some damage might produce worse body odor. So you probably should worry more about the toxins in you, and not the deodorant. My point is: the more extreme your symptoms are, the likely you need to suspect toxins and/or acupuncture meridians.

      [An aside. Incidentally, my theory about how interstitial fluid travels in acupuncture meridians and throughout the body seems to have met with some support from the recent “discovery” that some researchers say they made about the role of sub-epidermal tissue. They call it “interstitium” because they think it can be classified as a separate organ from the skin. Actually, my model says it is an organ system because it is made up of many different tissues with specialized cells that sequester ions and micronutrients dumped into it by capillaries. It enables food getting to the cells by simple diffusion. This important aspect of feeding cells has never been addressed by biology textbooks. There has to be a way to set up a diffusion gradient and that takes a system of specialized cells. My model also explains a lot of other problems, like congestion in circulation. Most doctors just assume vascular tissue is involved in this problem, but so are acupuncture meridians. I recently learned how much of a network these meridians form and if any of them are congested, it affects all of them.]

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  6. Hello Dr. Pegoda,

    Life is stressful for those who have a daily routine. People might remember everything they need to but it is always one thing us people forget until we remember later what we forgot. As a freshman college student, there is so much to keep up with due to assignments, due dates, work, projects, club meetings, and so much more.Our brains are like computers because they are wired to what we only remember on any given day. Nobody is perfect to remember everything thing, but we only remember the things that are important to us people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is so true! As a college sophomore, I completely agree with Khalil. Life is getting harder every day as we have to remember more and more. Now because we have so much to do in one day and follow all those to do lists, we hardly ever stop to realize how self-involved we have become. One day if we are feeling lazy and don’t complete our tasks or assignments, they get delayed till the next day and we are just stuck doing extra work. That’s is one of the reasons why college students face anxiety and depression. Sometimes I just wonder how complicated life will be after a few years have gone by and how we will adapt to the changes then.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I completely agree with Khalil! Without my planner, I would be lost! I have to use it to keep up with my work schedule, due dates, tests, doctor’s appointments, meetings, and even lunch with friends! If I did not use my planner, there’s no way I would remember the plethora of things going on in my life. However, I can remember the most important things without looking in my planner, like tests, or upcoming essays.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Deodorant, one of the great hygiene inventions of our time. The world is changing, and for the most part it’s becoming better. Let’s think back to the days before running water, electricity, and being able to purchase items needed for the family. I’m grateful for this life and hope you can say the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The way I have always viewed memory is the easiest form of learning, you have physical learning, verbal learning, logical learning, etc. these different forms of learning all require some practice. You have to learn to speak, learn to walk, and learn to reason, with memory you just have to remember certain things. Now it is easier said and done, just because it is the easiest way to learn doesn’t not make it easy to do.
    With my daily routine of my hygiene and getting dress it has become less about remembering to do it and more of it becoming a habit. I believe the things that become habitual eventually become something you won’t remember but will never forget to do. Like forgetting whether or not you put on deodorant.

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    • I completely agree with your comment! We start not having to remember to do something because of how much we do it that it soon starts becoming second nature to us. Such as when I was in marching band, we would practice the show so many times a day that it became hard for me to forget it. Till this day I still have it engraved in my head. It is strange how at the time, we do not realize how much we practice something until we think back at it in the future.

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  9. Trying to memorize things by linking random things to it is very helpful! But….it only works half of the time with studies for me. Sometimes, I can recall the most random things that happened years ago with a similar feeling, smell or specific action! I wish I could find a way to memorize things regarding important material in my other classes.

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  10. I agree with your thought about how in the modern world, capitalism creates tons of tasks and daily chores that we are required to remember, whether we like it or not. I have never really thought about how much of the things we do every day are a result of capitalism, and how to-do lists and having to remember many tasks are a new concept when looking at the history of humans.

    Another thing that I thought was interesting in this blog post was the paragraph about the human memory and the limitations of it. I frequently think about how much more humans could achieve if we could process and remember more of our lives and information that is crucial to our jobs, education, or careers, since the brain is not used to the full capacity.

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  11. Could not agree more, the house chores, those deadlines from school, meetings, appointments all sum up to a horrendous amount of things to remember. I used to have an alarm set at 6am for waking up, but now I must have like 10 of them to remind me throughout the day.

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  12. Your thought really stuns me up about the busy life nowadays. I still remember when was a 5th-grade kid, I forgot to do my homework and my teacher told me that if you forgot your homework, then did you forget your dinner also? And now, I actually forget to eat my dinner because of works.

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  13. This topic interested me as a student, living THEIR OWN INDIVIDUAL LIFE, in a crowded city with over 2 million people.

    Certain aspects of my daily life have become so routine that it’s easy for me to forget that i have done them. Also, as a person with a wandering mind (and bad memory) I often find myself distracted when it comes to ensuring that things get taken care of. My attention can sometimes be consumed by things that are not necessarily as important or beneficial to myself when staying focused on tasks. So letting myself worry or wander, about a particular thing, can really get in my way. Some have even been implanted in my head (like you and Anna have said) from developments or trends in society. However, by proudly holding the right to be my own person, hungering for healthy environments and good people to cling to, and by practicing certain traits/behaviors like mindfulness, and kindness, i can better combat some of the stress and depression that poses a threat to my sanity and well-being.

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    • You touched on something that is a regular passage of life–stress. I noticed how stress increased when I went off to college. Looking back now, I realize that stress only increases as you get older. Not just because you have more to remember, but that relationships become more complicated, not less, as you get older, and it is people-to-people interactions that cause the most stress.

      Of course it gets worse!! More stress causes more anxiety, and more anxiety causes more stress. The effect is not additive, but multiplies with age. So we can surmise that stress actually causes aging. But no, it is not stress itself, but the effects of stress.

      One thing I mentioned in my previous post is that toxins get sequestered in many ways in the body, and ultimately in the bones (we saw this when x-rays were discovered in late 19th c). When we are stressed, we need more calcium. This causes the body to secrete more estrogen, which drives osteoclasts to start munching on bone to release more calcium (bones are there mainly because they store one of the single-most needed micronutrients in the body). But when toxins are stored there, calcium release breaks up the walls holding that toxin inside and they get released, causing the damage we normally attribute to “aging.” “Aging” is usually concluded as an effect of many things, without any experimental evidence to support that conclusion. Beware of unjustified assumptions.

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