Ever hear your mom mention her sex life? A cringe-worthy moment for the ages. You wish Hermione could wave her wand and extract the very words from your ear. If you were one of the unfortunate children to actually witness parental “involvement,” then I’m sure you’ve wished Hermione had immediately applied her latest forget-it potion to your irritated eyes.
“Eye Bleach” is a term for the mythical mind-cleaner that erases offensive sights from one’s experience. Eye Bleach is a popular phrase among the early adopters and geeks, as we are the first to see many a grim meme. We fantasize about the day we can stumble upon the magic formula that would bring riches beyond those Bill Gates.
Living in today’s übermedia world poses constant challenges. More than ever, we need to control where, and at what, we look. Many of the older generations grew up in days where national newspapers didn’t dare print sensationalistic or gruesome photos “above the fold.” Playboy Magazine covers were wrapped in brown paper. Efforts were made to conceal the rank and the odious from the sensibilities of children and the genteel.
Today, all efforts are lost. The Vietnam War changed photojournalism, newspapers, and television news. Shocking images of war casualties fueled student protests and changed our expectations of news reporting. The seal on the careful distribution of images was broken. When the Internet went viral years later, that seal had all but disappeared. The desperate need for Eye Bleach grew along with the Internet’s fast and furious distribution of images and information.
The Memory Rat Race
Our culture felt this shift. Various forms of art reflected the concerns. Google’s ngram viewer scans a large sample of books and rates the frequency of occurrence of each word. Here’s the ngram chart of the frequency of “memory,” “remember” and “learn” in the Google Books sample from 1900-2000 (Google’s sample does not yet go past the year 2000).
We can see the blue line (the one at the bottom at 1940), representing the word “memory” had a significant increase in appearance after 1970, a slight dip at around 1992 but no significant loss, with increases beginning in 1999 or so. The word “remember” (shown in red, at the top in 1940) slopes downward from about 1943 until about 1980 when there was a steady increase. “Learn” (in green, in the middle at 1940) remained pretty steady until about 1990, when we see an increase.
Two popular movies from the 2000’s took particularly interesting approaches in order to address the problem of experience and memory:
In the 2004 movie Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, main character Joel’s ex-girlfriend Clementine underwent an experimental procedure to have her memories of Joel erased entirely from her mind. When Joel learns of this, he also seeks out the doctor and undergoes the procedure. The rest of the movie explores many concepts around memory and experience, as Joel realizes how much he loves Clementine and doesn’t want to lose her or the memories of their times together, good and bad.
In the 2000 movie Memento, main character Leonard sustains a brain injury while fighting off attackers who kill his wife. Determined to avenge his wife’s murder but unable to remember anything until after he sleeps, Leonard resorts to writing himself notes all over his body so, upon awakening, he can be reminded of the information he gathered the previous day. The movie has two story lines, the forward timeline scenes shot in black and white and the backward timeline (flashbacks) shot in color.
These snapshots of Western culture’s artistic take on the prescient problem of memory are just a tiny few of the many works, both in art and in science, that address memory. Governments want to know memory’s secrets, scientists seek where memories lie, poets lament memory’s loss. Memory eludes. But we know it works. In fact, at times, it haunts.
New Lessons for a New World
When I lecture to parent groups, I outline the importance of teaching our kids new lessons to help them survive the übermedia. I give them this mantra to repeat to their children: “There is no such thing as Eye Bleach.” Parents usually chuckle when they first hear the term, as it’s so poignant it’s funny, but I go on to explain that images can haunt us. We all know how difficult, if not impossible, it is to erase disturbing pictures from our minds. It’s a hard enough concept for adults to grasp, let alone children. I’m actually working on a children’s book that illustrates the idea that we need to decide what media we consume. I’m not so hopeful in finding an agent or publisher, though. It’s too futuristic of a concept for mainstream buyers. It’s hard to be conscious of controlling the information that flows into one’s brain. How do you not see something before you know what it is that you’re not seeing? You can’t, of course. But you can learn to spot the warning signs that something repugnant is waiting. For example, an email from a particularly disgusting colleague that contains a link and the subject line “OMG YOU HAVE TO WATCH THIS” is a good candidate for the “Trash” folder.
The curiosity, though, that compels us to click on the link is the toughest to fight. Also, it’s hard to break the underlying etiquette rules that dictate we click on every link, read emails, listen to voice messages, or even peruse blog posts that are sent to us by people we know. We need to fight the curiosity, and we need to change the unwritten etiquette rules to include the right to ignore. These changes pose the real challenge.
If we can be aware of the warning signs, learn to control our automatic clicking, and negotiate with friends and family that we love them but can’t always absorb all their output, then we can move past the daily need of Eye Bleach and on to something memory is meant to do.
NEW IDEA: Lessons Learned App
Here’s a funny exchange I had on Twitter today:
Memory is key to our survival. It retains information like which berries killed our slow Uncle Ted. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind when Joel starts to lose the memory of Clementine, he realizes that those memories made up his very worthy love for her; he feels something akin to a slow death as each memory of her fades away.
Memory, as a muscle, needs flexing and care. Unfortunately, as more media comes at us on every flat surface in our lives, our memory gets fractured and frazzled. Instead of being exercised, our memory is being pulled thin. It’s becoming harder and harder to remember simple strings of data, like phone numbers or birth dates.
Like Leonard of Memento, we take to writing things down. We pay the memory industry billions each year in the forms of personal organizers, photographers, calendar software, therapists, event planners, and more. As Leonard and Joel finally each come to the realization that memory is the key to not only survival but happiness, it’s almost too late.
It’s not too late for us. Respect your memory. Don’t fill it with useless facts and data; don’t let it get drawn into a vacuum of endless posts and links. Try to stay aware that when you are caught in the Internet Procrastination Vortex, that you are actually depleting your memory’s ability to remember important things, to stay focused on and be able to recall the good, helpful information that you already know. The more you lose yourself in the vortex, the more likely you are to deplete your abilities to do anything else. Habits form. Your memory will get out the habit of being useful and get into the habit of wanting tiny bits of useless dreck that it will never have to recall in the morning.
Let me know what you’ve forgotten and what you’ve remembered in the comments.
“Eye Bleach” poster was photoshopped. Original sign here.