Monday, August 8, 2011

The Problem With Memory

I picked up a copy of Ender's Game recently at the book store and read the first page again.  I couldn't remember any of it, which is a surprise to me because I have read the book previously and have a great memory.  I flipped through a few more pages and was reading it again like the first time.  Same great author.  Same excellent plot.  I know the ending, but I could easily re-read the book again and enjoy it just as much, maybe even more so because I will be able to pay closer attention to the plot development and less time surprised by every twist and turn of the plot. 

Why is that?  Why can I remember the basic outcome and emotions I felt but nothing else from a book I read when I was 16?

The mechanics of the human memory system mean that I don't have a photographic or absolute memory of anything, and memories slowly erode over time, so that a once sharply contoured design becomes a smooth surfaced rock after enough washings. 

In many respects, that is what mars the entire human experience.  We simply don't have a perfect memory, and memories get distorted over time.  Eventually, only the general facts are remembered, or an emotional impression.  Nothing else. 

The problem of predicting the future is most possible through a keen understanding of human nature.  The details of history are soon forgotten even by those who experienced them.  Those who did not experience them, how could they possibly be expected to understand the future if they can't even understand the past.

As regards to the financial crisis, I think that an accurate prediction could have been easily made by people with a strong understanding of human nature and human history.  Those two are equally intertwined. 

Another problem is that human history has no beginning.  It is a continuum, with each action echoing down through eternity.  The root causes of major actions are never discreetly definable because each of those causes has its own separate causes, which could be said to have made the major action inevitable. 

It is a very Tolstoy perspective on human history to believe that everything is virtually inevitable and all the talking heads and political leaders are no more guiders of history as they are the victims of it, the illusion of control something we all share because to admit that we have no control over our environment is a solipsist perspective, which we all (hopefully) grew out of. 

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