The Goldfish Theory
For how long do humans attach themselves to something or someone that occupies their brain space every waking hour until they conveniently choose to forget and move on?
Written by: Amol Telang
They say goldfish have a memory span of 3 seconds. Yes, there have been experiments conducted to prove otherwise, but let's just run with this for now, shall we?
Okay, so why are we discussing goldfish here? Aren't they supposed to be the 'pièce de résistance' in the homes of the wealthy, where an aquarium would rival the size of a 1BHK in Mumbai? Well, yes! But what we're talking about here relates not just to the rich, but also to us mere mortals and more specifically, our memory.
Homo sapiens - a fancier name we have given ourselves - are known to have one of the sharpest memories among living beings on the face of this planet. Even with our grandchildren in our lap, we would be able to re-iterate every single detail of the time we spent playing gully cricket as a kid, right down to the match-winning shot. Or how we wore our parents’ clothes, running around the house, stumbling in their shoes.
But then again, do you remember what you had for breakfast this morning? Or the name of the guy you met at a meeting last week? Or worse still, do you know what happened to the celebrities, CEOs, and influencers who were caught in the #metoo movement? No, right?
It’s because, beyond a point, you stopped caring. The same topics that filled up your notification feed every morning, found themselves in every watercooler conversation at work and led to debates with family at dinner, now find no place in the awfully busy lives that you lead. Not a single minute! Why?
Well, I have a theory - one that I like to call The Goldfish Theory.
Man has been blessed with not just a sharp memory, but a selective one. You could think and talk about someone or something all day long - for a couple of days, a week or maybe a month. But that’s it. As our lives face new experiences every single day, what mattered so much to us a month ago, now probably occupies a rarely accessed corner of our brain, if at all. Else, we move on with our lives, replacing our notifications, watercooler conversations and dinner debates with the new ‘talk of the town’.
Don’t get me wrong - I’m not trying to call out our lack of long-term commitment or interest here. There’s a silver lining to this trait of man. It helps us get over trauma - an accident, the loss of a loved one or an abusive, toxic relationship. But there still is another side to it, where we conveniently choose to forget what mattered so much to us not too long ago.
Let's look at a few examples, shall we?
Introducing the world to Korean pop music, widely referred to as K-Pop now, the music video by Psy blitzed its way to the top of the YouTube charts with everyone dancing to its beats at every nightclub in town. Heck, the West Indies men’s cricket team also made it their signature move on the field, with millions watching worldwide.
Today, you would probably curse the DJ for playing an 8-year-old song. K-Pop enthusiasts the world over have moved on to the new sensation, BTS. The 'desi' crowd has latched on to the latest Bollywood earworm with repeated tunes and trash lyrics. What happened to Psy? Did he release any new songs? Don't think any of us cared to find out.
We all know people generally do a Google search for what's on their mind. Let’s take a look at a chart representing Google Search trends to support the theory:
Worldwide YouTube search for Gangnam Style (2008 - present)
Let's look at something a little grim now.
Even though Formula1 is considered a sport for the elite, Michael Schumacher has become a household name. If you saw someone drive over the speed limit on the highway, you would probably cynically compare the rogue driver to this all-time great.
'Apne aap ko Michael Schumacher samajhta hai!'
Formula1 fans have cheered every time the German and Italian national anthems played, as he took the top step of the podium and won the Drivers’ Championship for a record seven years. In 2013, he suffered a severe brain injury in a skiing accident, which was followed by a medically induced coma and then recovery privately at home.
Now, as 20 cars cross the chequered flag year-on-year, week-in, week-out, it is a rarity to see Michael Schumacher being mentioned, unless the current superstar, Lewis Hamilton is close to equalling or beating a record set by the German.
Worldwide Google web search for Michael Schumacher (2004 - present)
Okay, it's only going to get darker as we progress.
We all remember that fateful day in March 2014, when the Malaysian Airlines flight took off and disappeared. For weeks, we all speculated what could have happened to the flight - from scientifically backed predictions to wild conspiracy theories.
6 years on, we still don’t know what happened and honestly, couldn’t care less. Some day, the mystery will (hopefully) be solved. If not, our children will be asked about the event in an inter-school quiz competition.
But imagine the lives of the people who had loved ones on that fateful aircraft. Can they choose to forget? Can they move on? Do they still search the news for any news on what actually happened?
Worldwide Google web search for MH370 (2004 - present)
More? Okay, one last example.
A buzzword (hashtag included) that defined a movement that caught the whole world by storm. Big names were named and shamed. Brave women came to the forefront and narrated their horror stories. You thought it only happened in the glitzy, big bad world of the rich and popular until you realized the girl sitting in the cubicle next to yours at work also went through something similar. Everyone spoke about it, raised their voices, swarmed the streets and protested vociferously.
What happened then? Some of the accused apologized, stepped aside, lost their jobs and disappeared from the public eye, with their credibility questioned. But look around and you'll notice most of them have not resumed their normal lives. And we, as expected, don’t talk about it any more.
Worldwide Google web search for metoo over the last 5 years
Okay, that was some serious stuff. Let's ease the tension a little bit. There are many topics that we enjoyed at some point in time and spoke about so animatedly every single day. TV shows we watched. Songs that we heard on loop all day. Movies we loved.
Harry Potter. The Avengers. Backstreet Boys. Game of Thrones. Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. Choose your poison!
We barely talk about any of these today. Is that bad? Maybe.
Will Black Lives Matter go the same way? Maybe.
Will we forget about this entire COVID-19 pandemic someday? Maybe.
Well, I think we are better off just being goldfish.