Why do we choose to forget?

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By Tinky Ningombam

Our mind works in wondrous ways. Without the mind’s ability to store our past memories, we will not be the personalities we are, atleast we would not know of it.  Entire nations are built and erected on past glories of reigning rulers.  And hence the idea of chronicling the best eras, erecting the best monuments, marking a holiday in glory’s name etal. have all been in the pursuit that the people remember. Sadly, the same is true of memories of unfortunate times. Oftentimes people are “reminded” of times of toil and hardships, of war and death, to make them humbled or terrified, whichever works best for Power.

Collective memory, as we call it, is a strong tool for people in Power. Everyone in power plays these two cards. That of “collective memory” and “collective forgetfulness”.  And for their own ends.

I, for one, believe that memory is always relative.  Years of neuroscience have let us to examine brain functions and how memories are shaped, structured, stored and conjured.  In short, there are three categories in which individual memory is divided into: immediate memory (memories lasting only milliseconds) , working memory (lasting about a minute, enough for you to work on your task at hand) and long-term memories ( which last longer for us to recollect ).

Long term memories are then divided into many forms primarily by the way we store them in our brain: conscious or sub-conscious. Such as autobiographical memory, as the name suggests is specific to memories of your personal lives or sensory memories which is memory based on the senses.

In a normal life, a human being remembers so many things whether consciously or unconsciously and that is what makes us function through our lives. And in the same breath, we consciously or unconsciously forget things as well. Our brain + our psyche picks or unpicks things that is worth remembering. The sensitivity of our very breed is showcased in us being very impressionable and cognitive. We constantly multitask. We remember and forget, dissect and dilute, suppress and repress as we go.

When we enter a room for the first time and we look around for a comfortable spot to sit and we see a metal chair, a plush couch and a small short stool. Our past memory of the three objects presented to us will govern the way we pick which seat to take. And even when we try out each spot to judge the better, we are constantly comparing, remembering and experiencing the three at the same time.  In the same way, when we judge a situation, we constantly hunt down our “memory-lanes” and dig out information while we simultaneously experience the present. Hence “memorising” shadows our everyday existence.

And yet to survive through rough times and situations, we induce motivated forgetting or repression. As individuals, we repress our bad memories. And as a collective, the people in power induce bad experiences to be repressed most times by design. What is power if not control of what one should remember and what one should forget.  Echoing the immortal words of  Czech writer Milan Kundera “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting  (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting)

A dictator would not want his subservient to forget his iron hand, while a peacemaker will make them remember the tranquility of peace- time. When it comes to the collective, singular instances of violence or atrocities is seen as a miniscule event in the larger scheme of things, the collective considers them as short term memories. They like to forget bad times to repress them because everyone wants good memories for the future. And those who promise better memories are the ones that the collective always vouches for.

Today we are faced with different kinds of things to remember and forget. See the paper, news of death on one side, news of gold medallions and accolades on the other. Disorienting yet how completely mundane. How many do they count? How many can you possibly remember? People murdered in their homes, homeless kids stranded, death by explosives…Why do you need to remember the horrid stories of someone else that doesn’t make any sense to you?  Honestly, I might not have a better argument, self preservation is a primal instinct: to just forget and move on. But so will the crimes, the corruption, the oppressive laws if everyone chose to constantly forget. We need to “memorise” our past and experience our present. Because it is the civic duty of a citizen to conserve the collective.

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