chapter  2
12 Pages

Forgetting: A historical perspective

ByHANS J. MARKOWITSCH, MATTHIAS BRAND

Memory is viewed as a fundamental and important attribute of human beings. Its significance is concisely captured by the following citation of Ewald Hering (1895): “Memory connects innumerable single phenomena into a whole, and just as the body would be scattered like dust in countless atoms if the attraction of matter did not hold it together so consciousness – without the connecting power of memory – would fall apart in as many fragments as it contains moments” (p. 12). Memory is subsequently seen as a cornerstone of an integrated personality. It is therefore not surprising that nowadays many people strive to improve their memory by buying specific training programs or solving one crossword puzzle after the other. From an evolutionary point of view, however, at times it may be advantageous to forget. As Depue, Curran, and Banich (2007) pointed out, already in the Stone Age it might have been of survival value to forget incidents during hunting when one barely escaped death. (According to this line of thought are the recent attempts to develop “forgetting” drugs for women who were sexually assaulted.) The evolutionary advantage of forgetting might also be suggested from the finding of dissociative behavior in both normal and pathological states (see below). Dissociation as a mechanism of distancing oneself from a previous personal experience can be identified in several autobiographies where the authors write about themselves in the third person (see Günter Grass’s 2007 autobiography, Peeling the onion, or Reemtsma’s 1997 autobiographical description of his kidnapping). Various reports in the literature suggest that individuals with extraordinary extensive memory abilities do not usually experience a feeling of satisfaction as a result of this talent. In 1968, the Soviet Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria wrote a book about a mnemonist who was traveling through the country showing his unbelievable memory abilities. Nevertheless, as Luria stated, this man was never happy and later in life gave up his shows and instead used his knowledge of old Hebrew and Armenian to help other people by preparing herbal remedies. A similar case of extraordinary memory abilities is that of a 34-year-old woman who wrote to James McGaugh, a Californian neuroscientist, that since the age

of 11 she “had this unbelievable ability to recall my past, but not just recollections.” She stated that she “can take a date, between 1974 and today, and tell you what day it falls on, what I was doing that day and if anything of great importance occurred.” She further reported in her letter that while most people view her memorizing ability as a gift, she, however, perceives it as “a burden.” “I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!!!. . . .” (Parker, Cahill, & McGaugh, 2006, p. 35). Other cases of people with extraordinary memory abilities are often accompanied by very specific or limited intellectual and social functioning (e.g., savant syndromes, autism; see Markowitsch, 1992). With its two sides, one of remembering and the other of forgetting, suppressing, or repressing of information, memory may therefore be viewed like a Janus head, with its optimum functioning resulting from the adequate performance of each side as well as the balanced interplay between the two sides.