The Swift Injustice of Human Memory

So I have debated this for many months. Memory has always fascinated me. It’s so fallible and yet so crucial to our everyday lives. So crucial that we take it for granted and assume it to be correct.
This has been a theme to a lot of my understanding of how flawed science and our general logic capabilities, but it wasn’t until my grandfather’s second wife developed a dementia that I realized just how tragic this entire scenario is.
In this I have realized four “truths.”

When I went to New York this summer I took well over 1500 photos. I am pretty sure my mom was contemplating murder by the end of it, but I had to capture every moment in bytes. When I got home and realized how many photos I had taken I was shocked, it’s a lot to go through an pare down for sure. What surprised me was that I realized I had been taking the photos not as much so that I could post these photos online for all my friends to see what a fabulous time I had, but because I wanted to remember those moments. Like I was expecting in that moment to forget. Aware that one day I would be unable to recall everything we did and the colour of the sky as I ran in Central Park for the first time. The unfortunate part, I soon realized, is that the pictures, my memory, or both failed to do the moments justice. This is the first truth – we live expecting to forget, and thus we live constantly trying to grasp the past. And then the second truth hits – we lost the moment the instant we begin to reflect on its existence. Never again will you be able to perfectly recapture in any form that moment.

Photo number #1137

Photo number #1137

I am a little young to be worried about lost memories, but our brain, as much as we are told is virtually limitless in capacity, is limited by our ability to retrieve what is stored. Like losing the key. And that is tragic. I have been very fortunate to have some amazing experiences in my life. I have traveled, I have met some amazing people, I have eaten some amazing things, but somewhere in the jumble of hectic mornings running out the door we lose a chunk of our lives – we only get to keep the very best and the very worst moments. But sometimes the small moments are the best moments, or at the very least, they are the moments that tell the world who we are, what we want, and what we fear.
What I want most to remember, is the taste of the first time I had penne alla vodka at a restaurant in Mont-Tremblant. I want to remember the feeling cuddling against my boyfriend watching TV – the way his arms curved around me, making me feel safe. I want to remember all the afternoons playing “Little Skunker” with my grandmother. Instead, I have the third truth – We only get a vague recollection of the small moments that add up to who we are. As time goes on the memories get thinner and thinner.

As mentioned, my grandfather’s wife (step-grandmother? Is that a thing?) has been diagnosed with a dementia. I have studied it in school many times, even considered dementias as a potential area I would like to do my graduate studies in, but it doesn’t feel the same when it’s no longer a dry passage in your textbook or 2 hours in a lecture and 3 questions on the final. And now we come to the final, and most painful truth in memory – our memories help us to define who we are. I am a runner, I am a psych major, I am a daughter, aunt, sister, and girlfriend, I have a best friend with amazing taste in wine, I have a friend with an infectious laugh and a love of Disney, and I have a friend I have known since birth. I have accomplished some pretty badass stuff in my life, if I may toot my own horn so to speak. To forget how amazing I have grown to be. To forget all the things in my life that make me happy, heck to forget how I like my coffee and have to suffer through the experimentation again – that makes me sad.

Dementias show you just how tragic memory is. How apparently flawed the evolutionary system is. We have this massively powerful machine capable of remembering almost anything – it’s a large part of what has enabled us to have complex social relationships. Yet, your brain can deteriorate. This is not a unique thing, all the other organs can break down, but, unlike any other organ that can break down, when your brain deteriorates, it takes pieces of you with it. I have never strongly cleaved to the idea that the brain is responsible for “me-ness” – I have struggled to accept this reductionist argument, but perhaps in dementia I can see things a bit more clearly. My grandfather will have to watch as the woman he loves slowly forgets their life together and who she even is. And that is the most painful moment I think – having someone right there, they are still alive and breathing but merely a shell of who they were – alive but dead in a sense.

While I do not have the training to even begin to identify where consciousness is in the brain, perhaps I don’t need it. I wrote several months back that consciousness might be where you-ness lies, where the seat of our being independent of the brain can be located. But I seem to have trapped myself in a corner again, because it seems that as the brain and its memory deteriorates, so too does the self. So perhaps consciousness is the seat of the self, but perhaps it is not alone. Perhaps mind-body dualism had a point – the two interact to create a self that cannot survive without the other.

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The Human Mind: Unfiltered and Infinite

So a few nights ago I was watching TED talks before bed (#nerdlife) and there was a really interesting talk by  Ray Kurzweil who talked about the evolution of the human brain. In his talk he talked about how as Google moves towards more and more intelligent searching and our technologies for imaging the brain become more and more advanced, we will move towards adding these neurotechnologies to our brain so that one day we will truly have an infinite source of knowledge by inserting nanobots into our brain that connect to a cloud service.

Ultimate point – we will put Google in our brain.

And Google will learn to understand what webpages are saying. So when we ask Google it won’t bring up search results, it will have read and can deliver responses to complex questions (it can already tell you the answers to a large number of simple questions, and yet can’t tell me why the chicken crossed the road).

And I thought oh good God.
I mean can we just go back to Google – who already knows far too much about my existence thanks to my laziness with telling it not to track me – being in my brain and possibly searching based on my thoughts.
My mind will be Google’s.
Google already owns my digital data. It’s like the Miranda Rights of the internet. “Anything you search or post can be used to sell things to you. If you do not want us to do this, too bad. Do you understand these rights?”
But Google may one day have access to my subconscious thoughts?! Google will own my consciousness. Which means Google will own me?
Remind me to opt out of this nanobot thing. I would rather be the dumb old lady.

But this all got me thinking about what this means for the human species.

Google was added to the dictionary in 2006. True Story. It replaced a previous definition from 1907 that had something to do with cricket (the sport not the insect)...

Google was added to the dictionary in 2006. True Story. It replaced a previous definition from 1907 that had something to do with cricket (the sport not the insect)…

The big thing for me is that it already kind of bothers me, is that we live in a “Google it” world. And in full disclosure of my hypocrisy, I was overjoyed when they updated Google Now so that Google checked for my responses. (Hallelujah I don’t have to hit send anymore when I tell Google to text people! She ASKS me if I want to send the message and then turns the mike back on.) When my mom asks me what she should wear, I ask Google what the weather is. She commented “I wonder if it’ll be nice in Ottawa this weekend…” and I asked Google. Before I leave the house, Google tells me how long it will take to get to work. Google knows my habits, my appointments, my interests and concerns. And it’s terrifying.

But back to the issues at hand:

  1. To be useful, Google needs to know our needs. Like how Google noticed that I had a recurring appointment every Tuesday and started automatically giving me departure times and directions. So Google needs full access. It needs to know everything about us to know what we would need. If Google is in our brain, how do we clear browser history?
    If Google knows everything about our existence, then the access to our thoughts thing that I feared a few weeks ago when I talked about Mark Zuckerburg’s outrageous claim that one day our thoughts would be uploaded to Facebook, might actually be something we should be concerned about
  2. If we all have access to this vast array of knowledge – what does this mean about experts and intelligence tests? No one likes a know-it-all. And knowing and understanding are two vastly different concepts.

So Issue #1A: By wanting to know it all, are we essentially exposing every fiber of our existence to the world? Are we uploading our private thoughts to the internet in a quest for unlimited knowledge and smooth, hands-free access to the knowledge contained in the internet?

Issue #1B: We’re creepy enough with the internet as is… I think this may allow us to hit creepy level 1000. What happened to getting to know someone the old fashioned way?

Issue #2: Are we going to be smarter? Or dumber with more declarative/factual knowledge?

Potential bonus: If Google indeed monitors our consciousness, perhaps this technology could be used to flag individuals in need of mental health aid – for example, if Google noticed cognitive markers for an eating disorder or noticed that you were suicidal, perhaps Google could connect you to services or at least make recommendations. But this may not be enough – telling someone they have depression won’t make them get help, so at what point does Google become responsible for safeguarding our lives and sanity, and at what point is it reasonable to breach the privacy of the human mind?

But I mean the real question on everyone’s mind I’m sure (no pun intended) is will this be like smart phones and we’ll just use these nanobots to search more pictures of cats. Pictures that can be uploaded directly to our visual cortex?

the truth right there.

the truth right there.

The Future of Consciousness and Social Media

What about before Facebook and Twitter? Before we selected filters and shared every moment? When we took pictures to remember the moment not to share it? Can we still have these moments? Are we uploading thoughts or moments? Will there always be a difference that we choose?

So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about social media, and I think that it’s sort of a big thing in a lot of people’s worlds, I would argue that very few North Americans are without some social media account regardless of which platform. And as I’ve mentioned in past posts, I think it’s great; it connects us in ways like never before and allows us to create the story of our lives for the world to see. But there’s a future that I think social media moguls hope for and individuals with a yen for the good ol days and more traditional values fear. I’m talking the future where social media and digital connectivity has turned us into a bunch of hermits, isolated in our homes but infinitely connected in the digital world. I think that it is hypothetically possible, and many would argue we’re already on our way to it, but I think it is still just a little far fetched. 

I mean seriously... Kids these days... Go out for lunch and text people who AREN'T there/try to remember your password for an account you clearly rarely use...

I mean seriously… Kids these days… Go out for lunch and text people who AREN’T there/try to remember your password for an account you clearly rarely use…

Humans have evolved to be social creatures, yes social media facilitates a more constant connectivity, but I would not be content to never see my friends. Even though I Skype people, I still enjoy the fact that I can do things with them – and I’m not talking play digital games on computer screens – I mean going out to the movies or dinner, heck even cooking at home and a trip to Target. I think that social media can supplement these connections, and in some cases for many individuals is the sole basis of the friendship. We all have them, the friend that we somehow friended online back in the day when we worried less about privacy and online creepy people, but they turned out to be cool so we kept them. We follow people on Twitter and Instagram that we have never met. I personally am a member of a group on Facebook, where I have only ever met one of the members, and we met long before she joined the group. That’s the nature of the beast. Doesn’t mean that’s the only way I connect, or the way I prefer to connect. 

The other dark side of this coin is that we are putting our identities online, and all this got me thinking – what exactly are we putting online? I put a lot of my life online. Okay, you caught me, I put a lot of my cat and baking online with the odd multiple selfies. Same difference no? But I put a lot of what I do online, and occasionally what I think or feel. I share myself in a sense. But there is a lot I still hide. Or not even hide, but that the internet really doesn’t need to know about. A lot that I never tell anyone, whether online, by text, or in person. There are my private moments, my quiet moments watching TV or reading a book and sipping tea before bed, the moments where I snuggle on the sofa and have a cat nap (literally, my cat naps snuggled against me, but only when I am only napping). I don’t really broadcast my entire existence. My entire being. Just parts of it.

It has been argued that we are inherently social and this is simply expanding on social media platforms, and that we are moving towards total transparency. Some even argue that having multiple identities is inauthentic, that you lack a sense of integrity. But this line of reasoning really just doesn’t sit right with me.
Psychology has long acknowledged the presence of multiple selves, the desired self, actual self, the should self, the self we avoid being. We also have different aspects of our selves depending on the context – who we are with, why we are with them, what we hope to achieve with the interaction, how we are feeling that day. I am a very different person when I am with my grandparents than when I am with my parents, and even more different when I am with friends or in class. I have different mannerisms and ways of thinking in a sense depending on who I am with. Some may argue that that is the same self, different aspects of the self, but that sort of dual behaviour set seems to be what social media gurus are arguing is inauthentic, a split identity. And maybe it is dual identities, psychology certainly has room for that – my identity as a student, as an athlete, as a blogger, as a daughter, as a baker, as a Canadian. I have multiple identities that fit together, whether as a melting pot or a puzzle I’m not sure. 

Eesh. How's that for some first date material.

Eesh. How’s that for some first date material.

 And really this different selves, different roles with distinct mannerisms makes sense. Remember that movie, The Invention of Lying, where no one could lie until one day someone figured out how and a new kind of chaos erupted? While the concealment of emotions and thoughts can sometimes be a detriment, so was the interim when people would just walk up to each other and announce that they hated the other person or their tie. It was almost appalling.
Of course this was a hyperbolic scenario meant to show the bright and dark sides of the ability to lie. But just stop and think – if we were unable to conceal parts of our psychic experiences, there would be chaos, this dual identity, or only partially displayed self, protects society as well as our sense of selves. Yes we are becoming more transparent and I think next to nothing of posting my experiences and photos for the internet for others to observe and judge, but there are also private thoughts I protect, private bits of me that only I know, and that’s important too.

What the social media gurus and titans seem to be suggesting is that over time, as per the Zuckerberg Law, we will be sharing more and more of ourselves. Uploading our consciousness for the world to see. But this is next to impossible. I cannot type as fast as my thoughts. I cannot even always type in general. Yes I have my phone and I’m typically connected a fair chunk of my day, but I also disconnect from time to time; like when I run, or sleep. If I have to use an app instead of my Garmin I uncheck sharing options. That’s my time.

Except for this moment which was too breath taking not to take a breather and capture in bit format.

Except for this moment which was too breath taking not to take a breather and capture in bit format.

And we don’t exactly walk around broadcasting when we had sex, what we thought while walking to the bus stop, and what groceries we bought. That friend that posts their every thought, meal, and poop, is still annoying as all Hell. In short, we still value turning off, and we still don’t want to share everything with everyone. Social media experts argue that one day we will want to, or perhaps more terrifying – that one day we will be so transparent that we will be unable to hide any part of us.
Rather than the polished and photoshopped version of ourselves we present today, we will move towards such an intense drive for authenticity and transparency that we will be completely unfiltered, live sharers. What confuses me about their suggestions is they claim our existence, or as I have discussed in the past as our consciousness will be online. But how can that be? 

Are these experts expecting our brains to be wired to the internet, an internal and biologically integrated version of Google glass? So that our ideas and thoughts are instantly uploaded without our consent so that there can be no secrets, PR surprises, no slow mulling over of new ideas? Every unkind thought exposed for the world to see what an awful person we are? Every dirty deed exposed?Every moment of every emotion, from the highest highs to the lowest lows?
I refuse to believe that would even get past an ethics board. We have issues with stem cells and gene modification, I can imagine they would allow such a blatant invasion of privacy. Nor can I really imagine anyone volunteering for that though I am sure there are a few narcissists out there who would.
I mean it would virtually eliminate crime of our every thought and action was broadcasted, but what benefit does this truly have for the individual? None that I can see. But it does open the door for the creepy Big Brother proposed by Orwell in 1984. A dystopian society eliminating crime through the overt theft of personal privacy.
Beyond this issue, I don’t understand how this could happen. I know that the media loves to act like we are already developing the technology to read people’s minds, but let me just clear that up – experts in the field readily acknowledge that we’re no where near being able to do this on any large scale. All they’ve done is matched brainwave patterns for a few select images to the viewing of those images. Nothing creepy and sci-fi going on. I don’t know if we will ever have the technology to be able to read emotions, they’re too complex. Yes we can know maybe where emotions are located, and what centers in the brain are associated with classes of emotions such as pleasure and pain, but we can’t know what thoughts necessarily accompany them, we can’t know the complexities, because we can’t read minds. And just as early psychologists such as Watson and Skinner realized – all we have is what people say they thought. And we know people can lie, or maybe just don’t know how to verbalize or explain their thoughts and emotions. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – we are too complicated to be completely understood.

I can accept that my online activities are horribly transparent, I think we gave up that channel of privacy a long time ago, but I reserve the right to a degree of privacy, the right to decide what parts of me I share without being accused of a lack of integrity. I reserve the right to protect my identity, not one that is observed online, the painted portrait of my not so glamorous life, but the one that turns out the light, that worries at night, and giddily jumps around the kitchen when no one is watching.
Sorry if that self being all mine bothers Silicon Valley.

Rocking the onesie since '92. But I'm still glad the internet wasn't a big thing until I was mostly through the awkward stage. Except I was a cute kid.

Rocking the onesie since ’92. But I’m still glad the internet wasn’t a big thing until I was mostly through the awkward stage. Except I was a cute kid.