Some random thoughts on individual and collective forgetfulness.
The Bard of Avon had famously said that a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. Occasionally I come across a familiar face but am at a total loss to remember the name of the person. I always feel embarrassed and look for a way to get out of the difficult situation.
To my delight, I have learned that I am not alone. Not remembering names is a rather common phenomenon, and very few people are immune to it.
Science tells us that human beings tend to remember faces better than names. Our brains engage with faces and job descriptions in much more stable and durable way than with names. Unless it is an unusual name such as Bartholomew Higginbottom IV, the brain retains that information but for a fleeting moment.
We store names in our short-term memory. Such memory is transient and easily dissipates, leaving us a recognizable face but no name. Experts tell us that as we age we tend to forget names more easily.
I marvel at people who possess a photographic memory. They can recall past events and names with ease. The majority of us, however, plod through life with this handicap. Occasionally, some smart aleck will put me on the spot and ask if I knew his name. To avoid the awkward situation, I now apologize for my shortcoming by telling the man (it is always a man) that with each passing day I lose more brain cells than my brain can regenerate. If the truth were known, this hide-and-seek with names has been going on long before my hair turned silver.
I enjoy talking to my friends from high school or college days. We talk about incidents, events, and people. Not everyone remembers everything. We all add tiny bits of what we remember and slowly a vibrant and vivid picture emerges, a sum total of our fragmented memories. It is like piecing together shards of colorful pottery into a recognizable whole.
The recorded human history goes back only 5,000 years or so. We may find bits and pieces of our shared history written on cuneiform clay tablets and ancient coins, but they seldom give us a complete picture. We fill in the gaps by excavating ancient sites, and then we try to fill in the mosaic of history with recovered artifacts. Since our ancestors did not leave detailed accounts of their lives, we try to understand the past by piecing together the shreds and shards that we excavate or what wind and erosion lay bare for us.
Given the collective amnesia that human beings are prone to suffer, we often forget our remote past, and it is left to the sociologists, anthropologists, and archeologists to find the dots and connect them to make a coherent line. It is not unlike my friends and I reminiscing about our shared past and creating vivid images from our foggy and fragmented bits of memories.
In the first three millennia of the Common Era, a vast Buddhist empire ruled a large swath of land that constitutes the present day Afghanistan, Pakistan, western India, and western part of China. In the first century CE, King Kanishka built a magnificent stupa in his capital city of Peshawar, where he entombed three small bone fragments of Lord Buddha.
The stupa soared 500 feet into the air and attracted pilgrims from all over the known world. Some of the Chinese pilgrims who visited the city left detailed accounts of the building and the surroundings.
The stupa stood tall and proud for 700 years, and then it gradually crumbled to the ground. The people converted to the new religion of Islam and effectively cut the cord with their Buddhist past.
Almost a thousand years later, an American archeologist, David Spooner, excavated the site and confirmed the existence of stupa and recovered the scared relics. And then the site was left to the elements and was soon covered over with dust and dirt.
Today the people in Peshawar and, for that matter, people in the rest of Pakistan and also in Afghanistan have no conscious knowledge of their Buddhist past. There is a complete amnesia about the magnificent kings and their benevolent realm.
The trait of forgetfulness, both individual and collective, is part of human experience. Whether trying to remember a face with a name or trying to fill the gaps in the tapestry of human history, forgetfulness forces us to learn and expand our horizons.
S. Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and humanities at the University of Toledo. His column appears every other Monday in The Blade. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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