October 20, 2019


Most people experience the anxiety and fear of losing their memory. Schoolchildren, orators, stage actors and performers cultivate personal systems to ensure they can recall facts, scripts or sequences. The moment our elders struggle with recall, we assume the onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Perhaps it’s a residual belief from Greek mythology of Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness of the Underworld, that leads to a state of complete oblivion.

So much research has been done on methods to sharpen one’s memory as an essential ingredient for developing intelligence. However, more and more research is focusing on the benefits of forgetting. Ingrid Wickelgren, author of Forgetting is Key to a Healthy Mind, argues, “The ability to let go of thoughts and remembrances supports a sound state of mind, a sharp intellect — and even superior memory.” Neuroscientists Blake Richards and Paul Frankland suggest that forgetting enhances intelligent decision-making by reducing the intrusion of less relevant information; it makes us more flexible in our thinking.

This is contrary to Sigmund Freud’s belief that suppressed memories must be faced to create a healthy mind. Truth serum drugs, invented in the early 2oth century, were used in therapy during WWII to free blocked traumatic memories. In one episode of TV series Black Mirror, implants allow people to play back their memories in front of their eyes or on a screen. An extreme case of total recall of every experience is the condition called ‘Hyperthymesia’ which is said to be agonising by those few who have it.

Journalist Oliver Burkeman asks, “With all the focus on improving memory, are we in danger of forgetting the art of forgetting?”

Photography, video and sound recordings — and now Google and Facebook — not only make it difficult to forget, but they replace actual memory with stand-in images. Remembering can be an illusion — memories may be partial, incorrect or implanted. Memories become stories that define who we are in the present.

Collective memories, a term coined by French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, are created to establish national narratives that select facts from the past and forget others, to create positive national identities. Some forgetting is deliberate, such as sanitising history of colonial injustices or slavery. Some memories are too painful to remember, such as the Partition stories of India and Pakistan or the circumstances of the loss of East Pakistan.

Photography, video and sound recordings — and now Google and Facebook — not only make it difficult to forget, but they replace actual memory with stand-in images.

A legal form of amnesia was developed in Athens around 400 BC to resolve the impact of brutal wars. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a unique solution to prevent the blame game in post-Apartheid South Africa. Lewis Hyde, in his book A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past, writes, “Forgetfulness is no longer something to fear, but rather a blessing, a balm, a path to peace and forgiveness.” As Friedrich Nietzsche says, “Without forgetting, it is quite impossible to live at all.”

The arts have a completely different relationship to memory and forgetting. Artists, authors and filmmakers learn to simultaneously remember an impression and forget irrelevant details in order to ensure the work evokes the intended emotion in the viewer or reader.

Memory is now known to be closely linked to imagination, something the Greeks had already understood. The Greek goddess of Memory, Mnemosyne gave birth to the nine goddesses of artistic inspiration — the Muses of epic poetry, history, flute playing, tragedy, dancing, lyre playing, sacred song, astronomy and comedy. “Memory is the treasure and guardian of all things,” says Cicero.

While memory reminds us of the value of things, forgetting enables innovation by clearing the mind of past practices. As Hyde says, “To forget is to stop holding on, to open the hand of thought.”

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 20th, 2019