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Conscious Forgetting: Are We Unloading Memories Too Often, Too Quickly

What is the first memory that brushes against if I say 2020? Or 2022? 2023? What do you remember or more importantly, what have you forgotten?

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Aastha Tiwari
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“I remember it all too well.” How much of it do you remember all too well? Do you remember the last love affair, the wide-eyed gaze of that one guy, sitting across from the metro, the heart-wrenching, throbbing sobs during the last lonely winter?

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Do you remember the floating bodies held in embrace by the Ganges, or the long line of cautious, conscious beings for the Covaxin

What is the first memory that brushes against if I say 2020? Or 2022? 2023? What do you remember, or more importantly, what have you forgotten?

Our mind has a mind of its own; it’s a home of its own, surrounded by its own walls. The mind is the master of its bedlam. It locks on a thought, cherishes a memory, obsesses over an idea, and lets go of the pain. But, lately, it feels that the mind is drowning itself in the sea of information that brushes against its feet. Unable to process, the endless recycling of the same material over and over, it’s going crazy. One can say, the mind is having an existential crisis moment. 

Existential crisis, whoa! The word of this decade, probably. Everyone is facing a crisis or another, allowing the heart to devise its coping mechanism. It’s only fair we pay heed to what the mind does to deal with the ever-so-constant chaos. 

I stumbled across a video on Instagram that tried to depict the calm that ensues in the embrace of the right person. The world behind it collapses at that moment, and there’s sheer tranquillity. How does the mind, in this age, where every day there is a new meme, new reel trend, new scandalous, hot gossip, new crisis, new injustice, new battle, new war, seek solitude and tranquillity?

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Conscious Forgetting

The world wrestled with a pandemic, but somehow the amnesia crept in, much earlier than we would have thought. We hardly remember our painful pandemic days. It’s not like we have erased them, we have ‘consciously forgotten’ them. What does that mean? Dr Estes, in her book Women Who Run With the Wolves', beautifully describes this phenomenon. She quotes, “To forget means to aver from memory, to refuse to dwell-in other words, to let go, to loosen one's hold, particularly on memory.”

Furthermore, she specifies that conscious forgetting doesn’t necessarily entail that the event has completely been let go (won't we all want a tabula rasa, every time there is an inconvenient hiccup?). “To forget does not mean to make yourself brain-dead. Conscious forgetting means letting go of the event, to not insist it stay in the foreground, but rather allow it to be relegated to the background or move off stage,"  says Dr Estes.

I personally feel that after a point, I willfully forget some content, and distance myself to create room for other experiences. It's only reasonable given the amount of new content we get exposed to through various outlets, be it social media, OTT platforms, national/international affairs, or impending doom, daily. My generation is reeling from over-information overload. 

What makes it worse is our incessant urge to be in the loop of every trend, and every gossip because we suffer from acute FOMO, don’t we? How do I not know who Orry is or what the ‘woman’ trend was? It’s not like we store this information forever because, for every ‘woman’ trend, there is a ‘water’ trend, and for every Rakhi Sawant, there is an Orry. There is always more.

Everyone is capitalising on our approaching amnesia and fighting relentlessly for fleeting fame. To be relevant, curating content is an everyday chore. It’s a way to relate, but the problem with this is that it's like the River Kosi; it keeps changing its course. 

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It’s like the process of creative destruction that Hitler used to talk about. We destroy our realities to live in a new landscape. 

Motivated Forgetting 

Psychologists have done immense research on 'motivated forgetting’ or ‘conscious forgetting’ on the theme of trauma and abuse. How one doesn’t repress the emotions that they felt during a particular event but just lets it dissipate in the background by refusing to recollect the fiery, painful, self-inflicted material. We don’t remember it all. What remains is a frame that we hung on the wall of our minds. It's a way to shelter our fortress from the brutal attack of these painful memories. This can be due to various reasons:

  1. Motivated Forgetting: Wherein people forget simply because they don’t want to remember for whatever reason. 

  2. Deacy Theory: Wherein the memory has less recall value, so it fades over time. 

  3. Interference Theory: Wherein subsequent learning or information overload interferes with the present memory, distorting it and ultimately resulting in its loss.

  4. Gestalt Theory of Forgetting: Wherein memories are forgotten due to distortion/or lack of details, i.e. false memory syndrome

This theorisation of human forgetfulness illustrates that conscious forgetting, or forgetting in general, isn’t just associated with pain, grief, or heartbreak. We forget whatever we want to. We forget the reason behind that heartfelt laugh we shared with our friends while smoking in a park. We forget the last time we enjoyed coffee on our own while reading a book. We forget the last time we sat, doing nothing. We forget our firsts and lasts and everything in between. 

Existence precedes essence, is what my dearest Sartre told us. When he said that, he talked about the freedom to shape our own being, relegating essence to a secondary position. Is that why we chose early amnesia, the art of human forgetting? To be able to make the full out of our lives, to be able to exist, and not let a single moment pass us by? To choose ‘what essence’ defines our existence, and store some while rejecting others? 

What is this illicit affair that we have with our minds? Are we betraying our heart that longs to remember or saving it from the hues of pain? Are we forsaking our heart's tender yearning to recall, or shielding it from the somber shades of sorrow's pall?

Views expressed by the author are their own

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