Is memory the warder of the brain?

I have to be honest, I do not understand the younger generation -well, anymore than it understands me, I suppose. But I recognize that, unlike them, I am not working from a clean slate, and although I have usually tried to think for myself, I am still affected by things past -in fact, I imagine I still wear parts of history as a reward for surviving it. And yet, I cling to the notion that there is often value in some of what I learned when I myself was young: things that need not be discarded merely because they are no longer new; things that will not absorb the colours of the prevailing Zeitgeist; things that are pillars which help support the knowledge of today.

And I realize I am not the man I was when I was young. I do not think as quickly anymore and so I use experience as a crutch they do not have. I do not disagree with them out of spite, or pride; I disagree because, unlike the physicist, and philosopher Thomas Kuhn, I have not felt the paradigm shifting; I have not understood the need to see things from a different perspective. The old rules worked for the old tasks; perhaps I did not foresee the new tasks that have arisen… That’s all; it’s not a criticism, but a misunderstanding. Blurred vision.

My confusion was nicely illustrated in an article by Richard Fisher, a senior journalist for the BBC Future series titled, in part, ‘Generational Amnesia’.

I hadn’t really thought of an elder’s deficit in those terms -rather more of a Clash of Civilizations, I suppose. But Fisher writes, ‘Every generation is handed a world that has been shaped by their predecessors – and then seemingly forgets that fact… Some inventions are so ubiquitous that we’ve totally forgotten that they even are technologies. As the writer Douglas Adams once pointed out: “We no longer think of chairs as technology.’ But, ‘New generations also have a habit of collectively forgetting how positive social change comes about through the dogged activism of minorities once shunned.’

We all have blind-spots, in other words, and some of these are truly detrimental: the ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ is an instructive example. One, described by the fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, was that many of the fisheries studies ‘were failing to account fully for the slow creep of disappearing species, and each generation accepted the depleted ocean biodiversity they inherited as normal… it takes place in any realm of society where a baseline creeps imperceptibly over generations.’

But, we are all susceptible to an environmental form of generational amnesia I think. ‘It is not so much that individuals fail to recall the past they themselves have lived, it’s more that humanity collectively “forgets” the natural world as it once was, as the generations pass.’ 

According to the psychologist Peter Kahn of the University of Washington and his colleague Thea Weiss, “The problem is one of the most pressing psychological problems of our lifetime,” they write. “It is hard enough to solve problems, like deforestation, ocean acidification, and climate change; but at least most people recognise them as problems.”

And there’s another example that I myself have noticed on my many drives across the country: the windscreen phenomenon ‘which describes the observation by all but the youngest generations that fewer insects are splattered on their cars nowadays.’ I used to take short vacations through the mountains in my old VW Camper-van with my kids when they were young, and they often complained about how dirty the windows kept getting from the insects. I recognized that a lot of them seemed to be mosquitoes or black flies, so I was happy to see them on the outside of the windshield rather than in the van.

But unlike her older brother my daughter often became upset because she said the van was killing them just because they got in the way. They were like teeny tiny pedestrians simply trying to cross the road to go to the store, or little animals running into traffic because they didn’t know any better. I tried to reason with her, I remember. I tried to tell her that unavoidable accidents sometimes happen when you drive, but in the case of insects, there were so many, it was hard to avoid them. That was then, of course; I don’t see that anymore…

For that matter, where are the wasp nests that used to appear like magic each summer under the eaves that protected my front steps from rain? And where are all the barn swallows that swooped and darted over the little pasture outside the house? We used to watch them through the kitchen windows, and when we ate our lunches on the porch we counted all the birds perching in the rim of trees that held back the forest from stepping on the grass. The kids are grown now, of course, but they only miss what I remind them of -when I remember what there is to remember, that is. And even I forget now…

I live on an island and in an area that was once relatively untouched by the nearby city. Trees congregated near the house like curious groups of neighbours. Mindful of the little meadows of grass around the house, they only watched and waited for me to disappear. Everybody does eventually, I could almost hear them thinking; they were in no hurry and the soil wasn’t going anywhere either. But, somebody is building a house on the other side of the meadow now, clearing the trees, and putting in a road. And this time the forest has stepped back to watch its friends, not me, disappear.

I know there was a time when none of us had yet appeared, and the trees had the island to themselves. But, as more and more of us started to arrive, they had to learn to watch and wait, and hope that we would disappear again. I’d even like to think they remember us watching them from the porch so many years ago, but I suspect that, like the young, they now wonder if there were any lessons worth remembering from those times.

Wondering if it was ever normal to live with only trees.


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