Today I want to talk about remembering and forgetting, and particularly the vast difference between human and computer memory. Popular fiction likes to cling to some flawed analogies, but any AI expert or neuroscientist knows better. The brain doesn’t distinguish between software and hardware. Memories are not pieces of data. You can’t upload them to the cloud. Everything worth remembering is stored associatively and will fade without context. There are no neat folders and drawers in your head to keep work and private affairs organized. If only there were.
Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein from 2012 is a respectable piece of immersive and participatory journalism. While researching his book about the workings of human memory he took an active and successful part in memory championships. These are as the name suggests: competitions to store and reproduce random facts against the clock. The winners are experts at creative mnemonics, the age-old practice to connect random facts into a memorable narrative by making links that stick, however far-fetched.
Contests like these impress us because we witness humans do something they were not built to do. There is something superhuman about the achievement, like watching Olympic gymnasts at work. It’s the cerebral version of the classic triathlon, with swimming, cycling and a marathon for dessert. And it should stay a humans-only party, because even the strongest man in the world couldn’t arm-wrestle an average gorilla. You may be the hottest human computer that ever lived, but you will still be arithmetically crushed by a Commodore 64. Who can remember a random number of a thousand digits and reproduce it flawlessly a decade later? Who can take on the ten best chess players in the world simultaneously and win? No one.
Why should we even? Our bodies evolved for survival on the plains of Africa. The examples above are silly timewasters for a hunter/gatherer. Look at what we can do. Carrying a conversation in a crowded bar while the waiter briskly walks down a spiral staircase carrying a full tray of glasses without spilling. The amount of information processing to carry off such a feat is vast, no matter how trivial it feels. What’s going on in your brain dwarfs the computing power needed for a game of digital chess. We were not optimized to play chess; computers are. We can ride a bicycle in a crowded street. Remember that it has already been a quarter of a century when Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov, but that we still don’t have a safe self-driving car, let alone a bicycle-riding robot delivering meals during rush hour.
The computer is a blank slate. You can make him do anything with the proper instructions. Every piece of data it needs to do its designated job has its place and function. You can change or remove it and the program will behave differently. No vague residue will remain in the hardware testifying to what the software once did. If only we could upgrade our own heads in the same way.
Suppose that one day we can have every unwanted memory of people or events erased with surgical precision. That brings me to the classic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When it popped up in my Netflix suggestions, I had to watch this beautiful romantic film from 2004 starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet again. The science raises some eyebrows, but don’t let it distract you. Writer Charlie Kaufman doesn’t aim for scientific rigor. He’s the man behind the acclaimed and seriously weird Being John Malkovich.
Kind and introverted Joel Barish is torn up with sadness when he finds out his ex-girlfriend Clementine had their entire joint past surgically zapped from her memory after their painful break-up. He is now a perfect stranger to her. A beautiful, outgoing woman of irresistible charm yet equally fickle of temperament, she falls in love easily, but has a hard time with the long run. Clouded by disappointment and rancor Joel agrees to the same treatment. In a state of semi-consciousness, he witnesses how the brain specialist burns away every episode he shared with his darling Clementine, also the precious ones. Halfway through this nightmare he is overcome with regret, and revolts. He doesn’t want to forget her. But it’s too late.
The procedure was not flawless, however. A faint and by now subconscious memory of the place where they first met compels the two exes back to the beach at Montauk on a freezing Valentine’s Day. There they meet again as strangers and the sparks fly a second time. But the innocence is short-lived when each is confronted with the taped interview they had prior to the procedure, when they had nothing but bitter words to speak of the other. Against their better judgement they take the leap of faith and try again. You need to be a glass-half-full person to consider that a happy ending. I am.
Your episodic memory is a tangled mess. It’s impossible to pinpoint the memory of an event, much less erase it. But you can perform a clean-up. I am drawn less and less to thoughts of my first marriage, which ended in divorce twenty years ago. The curtains are slowly closing. The scarce precious moments linger on. I have unknowingly protected myself by telling a different story. The many unpleasant moments have lost their sting, until they are uninteresting enough to be forgotten. I became aware of this healing self-deception when I re-read some printed emails of those troubled times. I should not have done that. Luckily these memories only exist on paper. I can always throw them away.