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Mechanisms of Forgetfulness ~ Dr. Antonio Giordano, Sbarro Institute (SHRO)

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

Learning from our own experiences is essential for not repeating the same mistakes as in fact, our memory has learned from the memory of our ancient instinct for survival.

Thanks to our ability to maintain the “genetic memory” inherited from an earlier generation, we are capable of living, breeding, and passing on the same knowledge to our progeny as in fact DNA functions as an “archive” preserving the genetic instructions from previous generations. According to intuitions not entirely confirmed by scientific facts, DNA can include “memories” of our ancestors. The idea of genetic memory has been often used in modern literary work. For instance, in Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series, the protagonist is born with memories and experiences of his forebears stored in his DNA.

Facts and civil achievements of the past would likely aid us in defusing the same tragic mechanisms that cause drifts, wars, catastrophes, persecutions, and misfortunes in the present if they remained in our character.

We would wish to vouch for the truth and efficiency of Cicero’s famous maxim, “Historia magistra vitae est”, meaning ‘History is life’s teacher’.

But as Eugenio Montale reminds us through his poetry, “… La storia non è magistra di niente che ci riguardi...”, or simply ‘…history is not masterful about anything that concerns us…’

After all, “the only thing we have learned from history is that man has learned nothing from history” as stated by Hagel.

The ‘long narrative of forgetfulness’ explains past history to us through wars, dynamics of discrimination, corruption, and bad governance. But why forget?

According to scientists, memories are stored in sets of neurons, called “engram cells” and represent potentially retrievable memories. These cells are further divided into accessible, which are reactivated by natural recall signals, and inaccessible, which are not reactivated.

So, forgetfulness will only occur when the engram cells are not reactivated, thereby making that memory inaccessible.

It’s a bit like having memories locked in a safe and not remembering the combination. In many instances, forgetfulness rates reflect a type of neuroplasticity that modifies engram cell accessibility depending on the personal environment. Dr. Ryan clarified that forgetting is not the loss of information but rather "a reshaping of the circuit" that changes the engram cells' status from accessible to inaccessible. Forgetting is regarded as a sort of learning, and, while pathological forgetting, which affects people with Alzheimer's disease, is not reversible or occurs in phases, natural forgetting is. Thus, it is a very peculiar mechanism of both historical and human memory.

In contrast to what science supports, that we tend to forget tragic events "not to alienate ourselves and continue to live," forgetting is frequently a matter of opportunism, political or managerial, and tragic forgetfulness is frequently an excuse, which allows us to put aside what is inconvenient.

What fullness is to emptiness, memory is to forgetfulness. It is also true that recent research confirms that remembering without selective memory, in an abundance of information, "makes us lose" for which we would forget.

The “all-encompassing information of social networks” interferes with the brain and memory processes and can result in individual and community mental issues. Nietzsche developed the theory of ‘living without memory’, or systematic forgetfulness. However, many cultures do survive oblivion, because some of their acquired notions remain ‘in latency’, and the solution to what they thought they had forgotten comes back.

Want to read this article in Italian? Click here to view the Sud Reporter article by Prof Giordano.

Professor Antonio Giordano, M.D., Ph.D. is the Founder and Director of Sbarro Health Research Organization based at the College of Science and Technology, Temple University, Philadelphia. Connect with him on his social media channels to follow more updates: (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram)

Check out other articles from Professor Antonio Giordano, click here.

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