Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A World Without Memory

A religious sister who writes a weekly column in the Peace Weekly tells the readers about her experience a few days previous, teaching a class of middle school children about the spirituality of the young. They were all happy to see her and listened with great curiosity and attention. They seemed to be concentrating on her talk and nodding their heads to the sister's words. She was very happy with the presentation and gave the students an activity assignment at the end.

The problem appeared after the talk. When the group instructors asked, "What did you learn?" "What activity did you receive?" They had a blank stare on their faces and to questions, understood little of what the sister said. Another Sister, who accompanied her, found the response of the students weird for the students seemed to be following the talk, asked good questions and worked hard at the activity. What in the world happened? One person said: "There was no test to follow no reason to remember." "Aha," the group nodded.

This is sad but the reality. The gap between meaning and meaningless is enormous, the difference in doing something with meaning and without meaning has tremendous consequences. Neuroscientists say that seeing things without meaning activates only part of the occipital lobe responsible for vision. The memory does not work at all. But when you listen, see, and read something with meaning, your brain opens up new pathways and doubles or triples your brain's neuronal activity, extending one's memory.

They answered wisely in class and worked on their workbooks, but they couldn't extract anything from their memories. No, rather nothing even entered their memories.  At that moment they are understanding just by feeling. No reward was expected, nor was any test envisioned, the talk was for the moment. But if you think about it, is that not true of all of us? She listens to many sermons at Mass and some are very good but she remembers very little of what was said. Memory of the priest's expressions, gestures and, a good feeling from hearing the sermon remain but later looking back at what was said it was bottom-side up.

She remembers William Stafford's verse, "I closed my book, and I left my head in the book." One may read a book very zealously, enjoy the book but little will remain unless the information is translated into meaning.

Moreover, in the screen world in which we have entered, when you ask 'what is it?' the hand is quickly on the smartphone. No need to think or remember, your smartphone will take care of it for you. We are leaving our heads in the computer.

Without memory, there is no past or present. "I have a memory of the past, so I have a present, and I am conscious of my existence." But her memory capacity is getting smaller and she is somewhat nervous. A distracting media environment makes continuous attentiveness to what we are doing difficult. Nothing is remembered by itself. More urgent than ever to process interpreting what we read, see and hear trying to perceive and recognize its meaning to us and others.

How much do we remember from the experiences of today, what we have heard and read today? It would be very painful knowing that the temporary memory system is all that is operative like our middle school children.

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