The Downsides of Perfect Memory

What if you could remember every event of your life? When I was a student in college taking psychology courses, the study of memory fascinated me. In particular learning about a certain group of people with ‘High superior autobiographical memory’ or HSAM for short who have extraordinary ability to remember nearly everything. Imagine being able to recall the details from “every painting, on every wall, in every gallery space, between nearly 40 countries” as one person with HSAM put it. I was intrigued and, as a sleep-deprived undergraduate, thought that having perfect memory can only yield upside.

But, those few HSAM folks aren’t necessarily happier people. Humans selectively forget, likely as an evolutionary trait to help us focus on the more important things. On a more subconscious level, humans can also recall more positive memories about our own lives to dilute the effects of more negative or unwanted memories, which aids in our own internal narratives of ourselves. Some of the drawbacks of HSAM include the inability to live in the present and can be prone to depression because of the near-perfect recollection of the bad memories.

The rather long preamble brings me to the case of Alexi McCammond. Ms. MCammond, 27, is a young up-and-coming- journalist who was tapped to lead Teen Vogue as the publication’s new editor in chief before decade-old anti-Asian and homophobic tweets resurfaced, which led to her resignation before she e. The tweets in question were made when she was 17 or 18 — barely an adult. By all accounts, Ms. McCammond had been on her way on the up-and-up before this incident covering President Biden’s campaign for Axios and named “emerging journalist of the year” by the National Association of Black Journalists. Was she a bit inexperienced to take the top job? Maybe. But, someone in management clearly thought she was up for it.

The obvious diversity dilemmas of hiring and firing a young black woman aside, the supposedly damning past racist tweets were…pedestrian. Reading the tweets (the supposed anti-Asian ones at least, I couldn’t find the homophobic ones), it’s clear that they were insensitive and dumb, especially with anti-Asian crimes on the rise, but hardly the kind of career-ending vitriol that has plagued many others in the media. In fact, Alexi’s apparent stereotyping of Asians — that she’s “outdone” by an Asian — isn’t too much different than New York mayor hopeful’s Andrew Yang’s own Asian jokes being good at math (because he’s Asian) or knowing lots of doctors (because he’s Asian.)

Were her tweets dumb? Yes. Career-ending? I hope not.

Which brings me to the larger point of how culpable are we all for the actions we take on the internet, particularly in the social media sphere, which is growing more and more to be a collective social memory that is searchable, cataloged, and accessible (especially in this time of increasing data hacks) to many others in ways that memory can’t be. This idea becomes even more complicated when social media giants reward outrageous content and the subsequent blowback from public shaming — in other words, some of the lowest points of our lives can get dragged through the public square over and over again, having the opposite effect of what our selective memory can do. No wonder elevated usage of social media can lead to a decline in our mental health and self-esteem.

So what can be done? Should we as the general public be able to “forget” some of the dumber things we’ve done in the past? Countries like the U.K. certainly think so. In 1974, the U.K. Parliament passed the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act which “penalizes the “unauthorized disclosure of …previous convictions, to amend the law of defamation.” Basically, (as I interpret is as a non-lawyer), a measure that makes it harder to dig up legal dirt on someone as times goes by. he European Union has taken steps to enforce “the right to be forgotten” under its General Data Protection Regulation where citizens “have the right to obtain from the controller the erasure of personal data concerning him or her without undue delay and the controller shall have the obligation to erase personal data without undue delay. In the United States, even though some surveys show that 9/10 Americans want the “right to be forgotten”, such legislation to my knowledge doesn’t exist.

In “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” it’s revealed that Bucky Barnes (the eponymous Winter Soldier), the best friend of Steve Rogers (aka the OG Captain America) carried on Steve’s notebook of things he needs to catch up on. However, unlike the optimistic Steve who wanted to focus on things that would make him relevant in the present, Bucky’s page filled with names he has wronged in the past — and all signs point to the fact that he’s a much unhappier man because of it. The “cancellation” of Ms. McCammond, in my mind, is far less a victory for progressive Twitter and much more a symptom of a culture unhealthily obsessed with digging up the mistakes of the past. Like some with HSAM, how can we move on from our past mistakes if we’re forced to relive them, over and over again?

Film Lover. Squash Player. Economist. Currently in Hong Kong.

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