Envy the Cow Its Forgetfulness
NIETZSCHE, so many consonants! Without a familiar alphabetic pattern, one tends to be confused about the spelling. Yet even if there were more than 22,000 random letters to remember, Daniel Tammet could do it. Tammet is a savant with the remarkable ability to remember thousands of unpatterned digits of pi. Like other savants, his brain functions uniquely. Probably caused by “damage” to the left temporal lobe, a savant’s special gifts are typically feats of memory other human brains cannot perform. But why not? Because most people forget insignificant memories. Most people can’t even spell Nietzsche, for that matter, but savants such as Tammet cannot forget.
A study by the Scripps Research Institute—not the Scripps Spelling Bee, mind you—concludes that dopamine receptors are responsible for remembering and forgetting, at least in fruit flies. As Michio Kaku hypothesizes in The Future of the Mind, “The key to photographic memory may not be the ability of remarkable brains to learn, on the contrary, it may be their inability to forget.” Exploring the Scripps Institute study, he points out that “…By interfering with the action of the dCA1 and DAMB receptors, they [the research team] could, at will, increase or decrease the ability of fruit flies to remember and forget.” Kaku wonders whether similar receptors could improve memory in human beings—or help them remove unhelpful ones. The ethical question then emerges, if we can, should we remove painful memories?
In his brilliant essay, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” Friedrich Nietzsche envies cattle because “…[T]hey do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day…” (Whose leaping cows are these, by the way?!) Here, the oft-embattled philosopher imagines a type of consciousness not oriented toward the past or the future, one that is ahistorical. Also, children “having as yet nothing of the past to shake off, play in blissful blindness,” until they are called out of their temporary state of forgetfulness. And what an unhappy moment he supposes that to be!
Everyone knows that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, an observation attributed to George Santayana. Michio Kaku believes this defines the mental life of our species as well, as human consciousness is uniquely directed toward the future. In his model, our memories allow us to simulate possible future events, which, he argues, became evolutionarily advantageous and eventually led to our development of a folded prefrontal cortex. Like many scientists, Kaku believes that play behavior is our species’ way of preparing for future challenges.
Indeed, Nietzsche and Kaku reach similar conclusions about what makes us a unique species. Whether our particular type of consciousness is different in degree or kind, human beings are able to remember and forget. We make sophisticated plans for the future based upon our experiences. With a deeper understanding of human brain functioning, it is certainly possible that we will be able to manipulate our own receptors, thus altering memory and forgetfulness. What might this mean? Is this wise? Perhaps we should we envy the cow, as Nietzsche does.
Kaku, Michio. The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind. , 2015. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Nietzsche: Untimely Meditations. Ed. Daniel Breazeale. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.