This kind of headline nearly always gets my attention. Perhaps it's strange, but one of my hobbies is to try to learn something new every day, so new discoveries are particularly interesting to me. Besides, whenever anyone says that science has discovered anything at all, I can't help thinking science hasn't really ever discovered much of anything. In fact, the only thing more entertaining than scientific discovery is scientific proof.
Unfortunately, this isn't a really new "discovery" at all. It might be a new hypothesis, but it doesn't even really seem to be that. I read through the abstract of the original paper, and while it was full of all kinds of really big words that made it sound all technical and stuff, here's what it said, in my kind of words:
New brain cells are continuously formed throughout life, and this action tends causes the normal pathways in our brains to change, making some of our memories fade. We tested the effect of increasing brain cell generation in mice after they had a memory and found that mice forgot things faster when we did that. Alternatively, we slowed the process down after the mice had a memory, and found they remembered stuff longer.Yeah, I dunno... That doesn't sound so smart in plain English but I suppose it might make sense. If memories are stored in groups of adjacent brain cells, and some new cells appear amongst those cells, then some of the connections that make the memory may be lost, resulting in a lost memory. It might make sense, but then again, what seems to make sense is not always true.
At any rate, I'm somewhat skeptical of the results of this study, mostly because I'm not sure how the scientists determined that the mice had any memories to remember, nor am I sure how they determined that the mice forgot things faster or slower. But I'm not really going to get that far into the actual study; I'm too cheap to pay to read the thing. Besides, I think that true "scientific knowledge" belongs in the public domain, and not behind some pay wall. I'm more interested in what the above-linked article had to say about it. Here is the author's summation:
"So the reason you remember your best friend's wedding day but can't seem to recall the time you decorated your hair with mashed potatoes is because making new memories destroys the older snapshots."Yeah, I'm not so sure how that interpretation even came about, but okay, we'll go with it. Apparently, according to this interpretation of the study results, forgetting stuff comes about because we have limited space in our brains, and so new stuff we experience, or learn, crowds out the old stuff, something that I've chosen to dub "The Kelly Effect."
For those of you who haven't yet figured it out, Kelly was Christina Applegate's character in the sitcom Married With Children. In one particularly memorable episode, we find that Kelly is actually a kind of genius: she can remember things as if she has a photographic memory, but if she learns something new, she forgets something else, because of the limited space in her brain, being that it's a finite space and all. I won't relate the whole thing, but the series is available from Amazon.com here:
Married... with Children: The Complete Series.
So, it turns out that this interpretation of the study isn't really new. This phenomenon was "discovered" by some sitcom writers years ago. Perhaps the person that once said to me that "It isn't really worth thinking too much about stuff, because pretty much everything has already been thought of" was right, well, if you want to put your faith in sitcom writers. I won't divulge the source of that bit of brilliance.
What I really don't like about this particular interpretation is that it gives people an excuse to not learn more. I mean, if I think I already know a lot of important stuff, then if I learn something new, I might forget some other important stuff that I already know. That kind of thing. To be a little trite here, I think we should never stop learning, and that somehow, even though the space in our brains is finite, we'll somehow find some space to put a little more stuff in.
I also have another problem with the Kelly Effect: why does it selectively choose only the older memories to destroy? I mean, there's some pretty unimportant stuff from yesterday that I could easily just forget. Of course, it may be a statistical thing. The older memories have more time to be erased by new stuff, and thus are more likely just by virtue of repeated chance to be eliminated, but, no, I think there's something more to this, and here's my theory.
First: Even though we can't consciously remember things from our infancy, I think the memories are in there somewhere; we just can't figure out where they're hidden, at least not consciously. Even if we could find them, they may seem nonsensical to us, since these are things that we experienced before we understood what we were experiencing. When you're born, you don't magically know that these people are your parents, or who the doctors and nurses are. You likely don't even know what they are. I would say it's extremely likely you don't even know what you are. You learn that stuff from experience, of which you have none at the time of birth, and don't really get a lot of since you can't really do much of anything.
Second: Think about how your perception of time has changed over your life. As you get older, time seems to go by faster even though it really is moving along at the same speed as always. Now, I'm no expert, except for the fact that I've experienced this myself. When I was young, say five or so, time crawled by. Five minutes seemed like forever. Now that I'm approaching sixty years old, it feels like the sum total of my spare time is five minutes in a day. So, when I look back to when I was very young, memories seem to be like a movie that's running at a faster than normal pace. And I imagine that looking back to the time when I was a baby, the effect is magnified to the point where it is mostly nonsensical. I believe this effect comes about because a minute after you're born, that minute is your entire conscious life, and so at the time, seems like forever.
Third: Take a look at some babies sometime, and pay particular attention to what they do. Not much. So, there isn't really all that much to remember anyway. I mean, out of all the dumps you've taken over the course of your life, how many do you remember the details of? I going to guess not many. But as a baby, those are pretty major happenings in your life.
Fourth: I'm going to bet that while people may know that they've done some pretty embarrassing things in their lives they don't necessarily remember all those things. Why? Because it's normal to want to forget unpleasant things. We have built-in biases. We like to look in the mirror and believe that we are not foolish, and never were. I think that those memories are still there, because we want to avoid making the same mistakes, but those memories are stuffed into our subconscious memory, where we're unlikely to relive the embarrassment of the past, and still use the lesson to avoid the same embarrassment in the future.
So again we see that the world is not anywhere nearly as factual as it appears. Science doesn't "prove" much, nor does it really "discover" much. Still, that isn't a reason to not pursue greater understanding of ourselves and the world we live in, even at the risk that we might find that what we once thought to be true is, in fact, not true at all.