Memory is a funny thing. Evolutionarily, it probably came about so that we can remember not to eat the berries that gave us a tummy ache, where the best fishing spot is, and how to avoid the sabre-tooth tigers. Remembering traumatic experiences qualifies as part of this survival mechanism. The longer and healthier we survive, the better the chances that we will have children and pass on our genes. Unfortunately, this system can be hijacked to produce irrational fears, such as avoidance of planes after 9/11 even though plane crashes happen much less often than car accidents leading to death.
But what about experiences that make us happy? Why do we need to remember those? How does it help us pass our genes on if we remember how great we felt volunteering, getting recognition for our work, or being praised by our parents? Is memory used in this way simply a spandrel (a byproduct of another trait that was selected for during evolution)?
What made me think about all this was the discovery of an original song that my extremely talented (and infinitely more so than me) friend, Mark Fossen, who is now a professional musician, and I created as the capstone for an evening concert that we had organized during high school to raise money for UNICEF after the 2004 tsunami.
The song (far from the perfect recording) can be heard here:
I’d like to re-record this song with Mark so it’s better, but that’s beside the point, because this song, for me, is really about capturing the context and the moments in time surrounding the conception and performance of this song. The song was written at the time of high school graduation, and the lyrics are about dealing with the inevitable future, how we came to this crossroad so quickly, the imminent parting of ways of old friends, and the wondering of whether there are any regrets while knowing that it’s too late to fix them… Our music teacher actually wanted to get the school choir to sing our song for our commencement ceremony at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, but then he chose “For Good” from the musical Wicked instead. Boooo…even though that is one of my favourite songs.
We called our benefit concert “Voices”, to lend voices and try to offer opportunities to the victims of suffering, and we recruited everyone from a local rock band (Ten Ways from Sunday) to a string orchestra, a professional community band, local artists, and a UNICEF rep to talk about how our money will help those affected by the tsunami. We raised a couple thousand dollars, and I am so proud to say that every year since then, there has been a “Voices” concert at our high school, raising money for a different cause annually.
Listening to the song brought back so many memories of my roots, who I was at that time, my passion, my past. It reminded me of the incredible people and experiences in my life at that time, and how much I cared about the arts and about harnessing the beauty and power of the arts to change the world. It made me reflect upon where I’ve been since that precious time, and made me realize that perhaps I need to tweak my current directions a little bit.
So maybe positive experiences are not spandrels after all. Maybe remembering where we came from, and what we were passionate about in the years prior, helps us fine-tune where we will go. Sometimes I think we forget our roots and in the process of reaching for our goals, we are changed, and we become slightly different people than we used to be. Of course, growth is necessary and wonderful, but so is not forgetting the fundamental values of who we are. Perhaps remembering the events that gave us joy helps us delineate the path to greater happiness, and thus greater mental and physical health, which not only increases the likelihood of finding a mate and passing on our genes, but it also promotes better development of the children that we do have. Happiness begets happiness; smiles and laughter are indeed infectious. Remembering our past allows us to create a better, healthier, happier future for both ourselves and our children.
And that’s the evolutionary advantage.
To end, below is the Voices 2010 Concert poster!