Humans: Are we Forgetful and Distracted by Default?

Trying to figure out why exactly people behave in the ways that they normally do is a tall order, for sure. It seems that, especially in the humanities, there are devotions to the subject of human behavior within most disciplines. Psychology, of course, but also sociology seeks to answer questions regarding human behavior, as does certain philosophical disciplines, and of course theology. Some of the explanations appear more magical, to me, than really substantive or explanatory. For instance, there have been, certainly, a relative amount of interest in evolutionary psychology; but, I don’t find much explanation found here to be helpful, nor very interesting. Once again, it is an example of a queer determinism at the very least.

Fumbling around on the internet I came across an article dealing with the phenomenon of forgetfulness and inattention to dire circumstances given a relatively quick passing of time. To put it a bit simpler: often after a tragic event much concern is shown throughout various media machines, especially social media, but despite the horrifying nature of the events soon the ongoing problem is forgotten. Even if it is an ongoing circumstance. The example given was of the kidnapping of dozens of young girls in Nigeria. Afterward there was a parade of sympathy, but now, just a few months later, really, all is silent.

The article makes clear, and yes it is true, that there is only limited space on the web to talk of these things; likewise, if there is nothing to report, then you can’t very well write an article up, can you? This is all true, of course, but often it seems as if the tragedy has completely left the minds of all who were once sounding the drum. Surely, as with all social justice campaigns, there is work to be done by the common people, even if there is nothing new to report, even if that means trying to find out what exactly is actively being done for the victims. But, you don’t really hear any of that going on.

Why do we forget so easily? Several reasons are given, some of which are plausible, but one that stuck out to me that seems, at the least, to be a bit anachronistic, was the assertion that as a “species” we are “forgetful and easily bored.” Is such a deeply anthropological statement really justified?  Or do we occupy a certain space in history wherein we have broken away from the longsuffering and tenacity of our ancestors? Have we always been so forgetful?

I don’t want to press the quotation used in the article too far. It isn’t a deeply academic account, nor is it confronting what I want to confront. There are multiple angles to the question of forgetfulness, inattention, and boredom.

What I mostly work on are the interstices of theology and economy. But, and I think it should be relatively obvious, both of these areas (separate or together) touch on social and cultural attitudes.  When dealing with cultural ebbs and flows it does seem quite obvious that the main mediums of entertainment have changed quite suddenly in the last few hundred years, with metamorphoses occurring quicker as technology continues to accelerate.

Before the printing press the majority of humans didn’t spend too much time reading, especially as an exercise in leisure. Heck, even afterward reading wasn’t much of a leisure activity for several reasons, with perhaps one of the most important being that most people were not afforded the luxury of time.

Us Westerners are used to luxury and the conundrum of what to do with our time. We are spoiled in comparison, and part of that spoil is the gluttony of entertainment. Reading as a medium of entertainment gave way to radio, then television and movies, then video games, and next the internet (with the near infinite means of wasting time, or being productive). Of course, we shouldn’t press a strictly linear progression, as there is definite overlap. But, even the way that television is presented as an artform has changed, especially to cater to a public that craves, desires, drools over excitement. Just count the seconds between shifting shots in most television programs. There is no stillness because it causes unrest. We need movement. We cannot sit still enough hardly to  read a novel, unless it is a young adult novel which caters to the excitement factor necessarily.


These are all musings. But, I do think it is a tall order to prove that we are, as a species, forgetful and easily bored. We have to remember that our ancestors, those illiterate, savage, uncouth humans in our lineage, were often largely an oral and based their social and civil lives on narrative structures. Identity was formed around common stories, some of which were quite complicated and intense. One could look at the biblical stories, for instance, and remember that these were known by the “common” people as oral tales.

Furthermore, when reading the New Testament letters of Paul one is struck by the amount of intertextual engagement going on, the echoes Paul include that reach back to the Old Testament stories. These weren’t obscure allusions, but were integral to images Paul constructs at some points. Paul provides no footnotes and, in fact, we would do well to remember that these letters would probably be read aloud to the church community they were written to.

2 comments on “Humans: Are we Forgetful and Distracted by Default?

  1. says:

    I’m not sure we are forgetful and easily bored by nature. I’d suggested they are traits we’ve cultivated because of all the troubles in the world. Reality is an unpleasant place to be when you’re always reading about children being kidnapped or the latest bombing. People want comfort and because we can live a life leisure it is easy to relieve the conscious of any responsibility or critical thought through the use of entertainment.

  2. That’s a great insight, politicalgal.

    Because of our obsession with leisure, and our aversion to the often disastrous nature of reality, we too often quiet the voice of the lame, the destitute, the broken, and the poor. I wonder what practices religious and non-religious can implement that will make us more present to the needs of others and to the possibility of imagining ways of assisting.

    If there a sort of “spirituality” of avoidance, whereby we practice these leisures in order to drown out suffering then perhaps we can implement practices that reminds us of our materiality, our presentness to the world. I think it difficult to cultivate such a virtue in an age where we are constantly bombarded by images of consumption that cause us to forget through obsession with leisure.

    Perhaps there is something to asceticism, though not the type we often think of regarding whipping oneself. Perhaps an asceticism that, instead of punishing the body, is meant to remind us of our embodied nature.

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