Amnesia: Memory in a culture of forgetting

The way we remember is changing.  There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that many traditional views on the process of memory and remembering are misplaced.  It seems that remembering is increasingly our Achilles heel.

In reality, memory has always been problematic and human beings have always relied on memory props.  ‘Back in the day’ we painted cave walls and decorated our places of worship with intricate stories that held tight to the truths we valued.  These were our memory (and life) anchors.  And today we have a myriad of such anchors, from smart phones to post-it notes.  Memory anchors play a key part in helping us live our lives.

But are we changing?  Are we now happy to forget?  Does it matter if we remember?  Are we now living in a culture of amnesia; where it is the job of ‘stuff’ to remember for us?  Do we now no longer feel the pressure to remember in ‘straight lines’ (where there is a clear narrative of ‘facts’)?  Has  ‘memory’ simply become a way of responding to questions or filling-in ‘gaps’ in a way that seems, or rather feels, good enough?  Can we continue to rely on people to tell us what is right, or true, or even useful, at least when any amount of remembering is involved?

There is a tide of doubt.  Behavioural Economics is probably the most recent and high profile interrogator of memory in the context of its accuracy (and ultimately its usefulness).  Within Behavioural Economics it is argued that memory is often a retrospective explanation for events that were, in reality, driven by subconscious and intangible factors and motivations.  So, in this context, ‘memory’ is deductive, abstract, rational and often ‘wrong’, rather than a mirror account of situations and experiences.

So where do we go from here? The reality is that people still matter, and fundamentally so.  Conversation, discussion, recollection and human explanation (even if partial, pot-holed and sometimes a red herring) still have a massive part to play in informing marketing and strategic insight.

BUT….   The reality is that memory often ‘fails’ when it is stripped of context.  We need to locate what people say (and do) within deeper, more expansive and meaningful cosmologies.  We need to embed the personal within broader contexts that enable us to explore and define the ‘rules of the game’ by unpacking the frameworks and cultures of everyday life that underpin what people do, say and remember.