Lost Knowledge

Have you ever considered the enormity of the volume of knowledge that once occupied your brain but is no longer there? The encyclopedic size of missing knowledge is simply beyond comprehension. Where does it go? Does it reside somewhere in the ether, information unaffiliated with one’s brain but extant, somewhere, nonetheless? Or does it simply disappear as if it had been a huge soap bubble, launched by a playful child, that suddenly pops and vanishes into thin air?

The information contained in the knowledge that once filled our heads continues to exist, but it exists outside us. For example, I once knew the names of all of my elementary school classmates. Yet I no longer know them. Those classmates still living continue to have their names (though, admittedly, some may have changed), but my knowledge of their names is gone. Some people might argue that my knowledge of those names still resides inside my brain; it’s just inaccessible to my memory until some internal or external trigger unlocks it and lets it flow freely to my recollections. I can buy that to an extent. But what about my former knowledge of chemistry from high school? No matter what the triggers, that knowledge is gone, never to return. I might be able to replace it with a regenerated duplicate, but it’s not the same knowledge. That stuff’s gone.

Knowledge isn’t just data. Knowledge can include images and smells and tastes. Those things seem to have a relationship, at times, to data knowledge. A smell, for example, can spark a memory of knowledge that seemed long since lost. I recall an occasion in the past when I smelled a perfume a classroom teacher years earlier had worn; the instant I sensed that smell, I was flooded with memories of the teacher and the classroom. The same experience of being flooded with memories has happened in other circumstances. Years ago, I regularly thought about former coworkers when an aroma provoked recollections of them. Usually, the memories were of women, because they were the ones most likely to adorn their skin with alluring fragrances. That doesn’t happen much anymore, probably because men and women both are less likely to wear perfumes and colognes these days.

I do not want to make too much of odors sparking memories, because memories constitute knowledge that remains locked up inside us. What interests me even more is the knowledge that seems to simply be gone. Where does it go? What happens to it? Is it possible that it merges with someone else’s knowledge and slips into that other person’s brain? That sounds a little too woo-woo for me, but I acknowledge that it’s possible. I also conceded that the possibility exists that some knowledge simply vaporizes; it returns to the atoms and molecules that once constituted it. That is, the knowledge simply dissolves into the universe.

Ancient civilizations knew, collectively, how to do things we no longer know how to do. For example, the ancients in Egypt knew how to construct monstrous pyramids. Today, we can only guess how they did it. Obviously, they had the knowledge about how to get it done and, in fact, did it. But that knowledge is gone. Or, perhaps, it’s locked in the human remains inside sealed chambers in which mummified bodies are kept. That brings up an interesting consideration: is knowledge a physical “thing,” or is it simply an artifact of the ways in which cells and neurons and electrical impulses in the brain are configured? In either case, I can imagine a point beyond which one’s brain simply cannot accommodate the volume. If a physical “thing,” the brain must eventually run out of room for it. If an artifact of configurations, the available configurations must have some limits, if for no other reason than configurations have limits (I assume, anyway). So, neither answer makes a difference. Not really.

Let me take a brief detour back to smell and the memories they can trigger. I think the memories may not be triggered by smells. Instead, I think smells may activate emotions that, in turn, prompt memories. It could be the other way around. I really have no way of knowing. But I do know I feel what I thought were long-buried emotions when I encounter certain smells. And those emotions carry with them (or are carried on) memories. I bring this up because I consider emotions part of the body of one’s knowledge. Emotions, while not necessarily equivalent to data, abound with information. And that information, like the kind we normally associate with data, can be lost. Or hidden. And, perhaps, relearned.

I still don’t know where all my lost knowledge has gone. I suppose I’ll never know. But I miss it. I do. Even the pieces I don’t remember having lost. I miss them, too.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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