If Only I Had a Photographic Memory!

Few of us probably remember the 1968 B-film cult classic Barbarella. In that fantasy story the naively buxom Barbarella battled the sadistic Durand-Durand and the evilly beautiful Dark Tyrant. One notable character in this sex romp was the blind angel Pygar. The white-winged angel befriends Barbarella but is then kidnapped and cruelly tortured by the Dark Tyrant.

pygarIn the climax of the film, with the city exploding around them, Pygar swoops down and rescues both Barbarella and the Dark Tyrant, flying off with one woman in each arm. Barbarella looks up at his angelic face, confused, and says “Pygar, why did you save her, after all the terrible things she did to you?” Pygar answers serenely, “Angels have no memory.”

It’s an interesting thought. Angels have no memory. Perhaps only without memory can one really be an angel. Perhaps memory makes us just too bitter, too angry, to resentful, too hurt to be truly forgiving. Perhaps it just isn’t possible to remember every hurt one caused you and still fully forgive them. Perhaps those memories must be sacrificed to gain your wings.

There is data to support this premise.  Researches have looked at individuals on both extremes of memory. They have studied those rare individuals who have no long-term memory – who cannot recall anything beyond very recent events. They have compared those individuals to those equally rare individuals with nearly perfect recall, people who can exactly remember almost every incident, no matter how unremarkable, that they ever experienced.

When you compare these two groups, you see clear differences. Those with impaired long-term memory tend to be quite happy and contented while those with exceptional long-term memory tend to be quite unhappy, depressed, angry, and even suicidal. Apparently, having perfect memory takes its toll. One cannot forget every slight, every insult, every disappointment, and every disillusionment. Such unselective memories make one quite unhappy. Not having memories can be a blessing.

On the other hand, those with perfect memories tend to be excellent networkers. They recall every birthday, every anniversary, and every name. So they tend to have lots of social support that can offset their hurtful memories. Those with poor memories on the other hand tend to have few social contact and fewer friends. The cost of happiness may be loneliness and the loss of social connectivity. Are they then still happy? Kind of a sad internal contradiction.

Don’t hire an angel to become your salesperson and don’t expect them to win celebrity Jeopardy.

Thankfully most of us aren’t angels with no memory and we aren’t elephants who never forget a slight and stomp their trainer into a bloody pulp years later. We lie in the broad middle of the spectrum. I am certainly no angel but I think I lie off toward the bad memory end of the continuum. I have a terrible memory but am pretty free from regrets and grudges. But I’m also quite bad at social networking as I am hopeless at remembering things, let alone birthdays and anniversaries. I’ve wisely perhaps stayed away from professions that rely upon memory and entered instead into a career where things change quickly, where continually looking up current information is an advantage.

Many of us imagine that perfect memory would be kind of a cool superpower but that such recall is just not really possible. But it is clearly possible and evolution is wise enough not to give us what we think we want. Sometimes less is better. We could have much better smell or hearing or taste, for example, and some people do and it makes them painfully miserable. Longer lifespans are apparently possible as well, but evolution knows that longer lifespans are not actually a good thing for the individual or for the species.

Evolution has given us the balance of memory we need to make us both functional and happy. If technology eventually lets us override evolution on this, we may regret being burdened with all those painful best-forgotten memories.

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