July 24, 2021

A mathematical function shows how we forget | Science

A mathematical function shows how we forget | Science

Societies always forget in the same way. After an intense but ephemeral attention, there is still an intense decline until, at a given moment, forgetfulness and memory stabilize. At least that is the pattern that a group of scientists have found in songs, films, patents, scientific articles and even sporting deeds. This mathematical function could be used to influence the public agenda.

Social scientists of the Media Lab del Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have used interest (and disinterest) towards a series of cultural products as a mechanism to discover how collective attention and forgetting are. Its immense database included almost half a million scientific studies, 1.7 million patents, all the songs that, since 1958, entered the US Top 100, the 14,633 most popular films released since 1937, as well as the biographies of 1,700 of the most successful athletes, among great tennis players, basketball players of the NBA and Olympic medalists with three or more gold medals.

"The form of attention follows a universal pattern and is the same regardless of the cultural domain that midas", says Cristian Candia, of the MIT Media Lab and principal author of the study, published in the specialized journal Nature Human Behavior. Whether it is a scientific article or the last song by Ariana Grande, they arouse a certain interest during a relatively short time. And then they are quickly forgotten. However, there is a background noise that is much more durable. "When you have a new cultural piece, a lot of people talk about it." When the attention is over, people forget, "adds the also member of the Center for Research in Social Complexity of the University of Development, in Santiago de Chile.

The songs last in the collective memory about five years, the great athletes up to 30 years

The concrete form of that attention depends on each type of creation. In the case of scientific studies, once published, they are discussed at conferences and congresses, the media echo their results … With films, attention is maintained throughout the operating circuit: cinemas , rental platforms, televisions … And, after all this, they fall into oblivion in a marked way. After this phase of apogee and fall, the decline continues but already in a much smoother way, as if they were archived

The authors of the study relate this double sequential process of memory and collective forgetting with two channels: oral communication, which they call communicative memory, or the physical recording of information, which they call cultural memory. The moment of transition between them would mark collective oblivion.

"Let's take the case of the songs." Popularly, now, pop artists are being listened to, such as Ariana Grande, Maroon 5 or Mariah Carey (part of the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100). We propose that most of the attention that these cultural products receive is due to acts of socialization and communication (discos, bars, friends' meetings, etc.). However, this does not mean that we are not listening to classics such as The Beatles or The Doors. In fact, we continue to listen to them, but, on average, the probability that we listen to The Beatles accessing the registers (Spotify, YouTube, vinyl …) is very high, greater than that we listen to them through acts of communication or socialization "explains Candia.

There are exogenous shocks, such as the Nobel Prize or death, which bring back to the forefront the characters or cultural products

Although the form of this mathematical function is always the same, the temporal parameters change according to the cultural product. The moment of the phase change between one type of memory and another, for example, is different. Thus, the exploits of athletes such as the Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal or the Argentine basketball player Manu Ginobili will remain in the memory an average of 30 years. Grande's songs will not go beyond five years. Films and scientific works have a somewhat longer life, until they are 10 years old.

Once something is forgotten, researchers have verified that there are shocks exogenous capable of returning it to the collective memory. Some are cyclical: "Every Halloween, the video clip Thriller Michael Jackson returns to the present, "says the Chilean researcher.They are brief disturbances, in a month, back to oblivion.Some more life has the popularity recovered by a scientist when he won the Nobel Prize, but at least for the characters public, the most intense shock is death, with it, the collective memory is more intense and lasting.

In a commentary in the same edition of the magazine of Nature, the social psychologist Alin Coman, from Princeton University (USA), remembers how the effect of the hurricane Sandy downgraded climate denial of New Yorkers. But, just as it came, the worry was gone. However, he writes, understanding how the return to oblivion could be delayed "would offer the politicians the necessary time to achieve a commitment on the part of the population".


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