Augustine puzzled over the mysteries of memory and forgetfulness. Where are memories “stored”? Where do they go when we forget something? You forget where you left your phone, or forget what you were going to say, and then it comes back to you. Where was it in the meantime?

Forgetfulness starts early. Researchers have found that “at ages 5 to 7, the children remembered over 60 per cent of the events they’d chatted about at age 3. However, their recall for these events was immature in the sense of containing few evaluative comments and few mentions of time and place. In contrast, children aged 8 and 9 recalled fewer than 40 per cent of the events they’d discussed at age 3, but those memories they did recall were more adult-like in their content . . . . this suggests that adult-like remembering and forgetting develops at around age 7 or soon after.”

It’s revealing that the method of recollection had an effect on how much was remembered:

“the style mothers used when chatting with their 3-year-olds was associated with the level of remembering by those children later on. Specifically, mothers who used more ‘deflections,’ such as ‘Tell me more’ and ‘What happened?’ tended to have children who subsequently recalled more details of their earlier memories.”

And that suggests that memory and forgetting is not merely a matter of individual psychology but also a social fact. Memory goes into the shared space of conversation and it not just in the head.

It also suggests that forgetfulness, perhaps because of selectivity, is a mark of a maturing mind and a maturing encounter with the world.Ask a 3-year-old to tell what happened, and you get lots of extraneous detail, everything equally important, one damn thing after another. Ask an 8-year-old, and some details will be ignored, certain details will be subordinated to others, and the account will be more than just a neutral recital of events but will contain judgments and evaluations. It will have the character of a story, and that narrative shape seems to be dependent on a certain degree of forgetfulness.

More on: Psychology

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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