I want to focus this post around what is happening (and what is not happening) for your brain a la civilization, to tease out the profound subtle effects on the human experience of the world. To be sure, it would be wrong to equate subtle effects with small effects when discussing the human experience of the world. Noticeably large effects/complaints of modern society, such as too much pavement, too much time being demanded by employment, too many advanced weapons, not enough sleep, too many diploma mills, too many abbreviations, “etc.”, are arguably less detri-mental than what is happening inside our craniums. As normal as these noticeable (and bland) phenomena have become, it’s the subtle structures of our brain that are more fragile to the totality of civilization—or civilization’s lack of a totality—that need consideration.
Learned helplessness? “It’s not like it hurts,” is what a teacher might say to reason with a student who is refusing to read a textbook, or write down some notes. Such mental “activities” as reading and writing, computing math problems, searching analytically for patterns using the tools of human reason and logic, might be painful to the youth who haven’t yet numbed their instincts in favor of the platitudinal thinking heralded by civilization; pain can perhaps be translated as depression, a phenomenon occurring at an alarming rate for youth. Small pains are always manifesting themselves, but are we ever learning from the pain, or just learning to ignore it? The pain of the daily annoyances, the daily headaches (literally), and the daily drudgery—whether at the student level, the cubicle level, or the factory level—can point us to a much deeper issue: what is the purpose of memory, and are we using memory in the way it was evolved to be used? Is memory a repository for factoids, a static hard drive to park hoards of separate data bits? Based on the function (and dysfunction) of memory in the modern age, I would argue in earnest it is not. The fact that we require hard drives external from our brains is not only evidence that we have too many particulates in our world, but also that we are using our memory in a way (to track and categorize particulates) that it was never evolved to do.
We have come to a situation where we have simultaneously overburdened and underburdened the memory regions of our brain, just as we have analogously done with our digestive systems—we are eating far too many vegetable fats and grain based products soaked in pesticides and far too few game meats and pre-agricultural vegetable and fruit. Homo sapiens and our cousins in the homo genus have historically most always been migratory wanderers, and so it would make sense that our memories would be optimized for and crave such adventurous, changing circumstances that would beset a prehistorical nomad. Nowadays, our brains are not being fed the stimuli they evolved to be fed. They still work of course, but not in the optimum, which is why we never quite feel at our best. The exception being those fleeting moments when something—like a fragrance on the breeze—hits us and grounds us in a place where we feel so much more alive.
In memory of muscles. Our bodies are built to migrate through a constantly renewing cycle of different fauna at different seasons that brings us truly into the present, where there is no anxiety to escape, no anxiety to doubt whether or not we are supposed to be there. Our brain is merely one of many essential body parts in the conscious travel of our bodies through the diverse landscapes. These days, we so frequently turn/sprain our ankles not because of a random poorly placed hole on the landscape, but because there are so few bumps in a road, paved smooth for the benefit of machines, not necessarily to the benefit of the human body. New technologies aren’t progressing us, they are being applied to keep the context exactly the same, which is why our bodies atrophy. Even though it might serve as a remedy, think about how dire the situation is that treadmills exist—machines that keep you keep you moving but not going anywhere. That’s not wind you feel when you are on the conveyor belt, it’s Sisyphus trying to smack you for your unwitting mockery.
The ideas of stagnant property—of staying put, of living within a limited range—have become so normalized, so disablingly comfortable, that roaming is both impractical and dangerous. We are so far from following the seasons, of maneuvering to stay in the spring and summer, and instead are stuck in a place of just accepting and enduring the fall and winter. We have taken the passive role, of letting change happen to us and then reacting, rather than being the agents of our own change.
I want to here postulate the following statement that seems intuitively possible, but I cannot find a rationale—maybe its lack of rationality that makes it true for life—to fully ground it:
Memory is typically viewed as existing for recalling the past, but its real potency is when it is fully activated in the present through activation of the senses available to the (human) animal.
In other words, memory is fully existing in the present without distracting/taking-us-away from the present. An example of this might be when a fresh breeze hits your nose through an ascending grove, and the smell and degree of moisture hints at a new fauna’s choosing to flower; you make your way through the brush towards the flower, avoiding the thorny bushes without looking at them, none of this activity requiring a pause to ponder questions like “where did I feel this before?” Memory in its full form asks and answers for you, not serving to distract the larger body in which it’s embedded.
The Abuse (misuse) of Memory: Addendum
So I was originally going to title this whole post merely “the abuse of memory”, and I was going to have a secondary meaning to the title being related to the following picture, but then I changed the title, though I still feel that this is the right place for my commentary on the Armenian Genocide:
So, this post could have been framed in such a way to be critical of cultural efforts to use what happened in the past to mobilize people via guilt/anger to do some bidding in the present or future. Using and reminding people to access their cultural memory in order to squeeze funds out of them or their efforts, or even just their recognition in which they may bask. I’m not sure I want to fully levy these criticisms on this church’s efforts to raise awareness of the 100 year anniversary of the genocide, but I do feel there is something that smacks of marketing and propaganda, though I just can’t quite get at what it is.