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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7 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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.

      Liked by 1 person

  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

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