What we forget (to remember)

This past week there was a stranger abduction of a small boy in my province (though not near by where I live). This is a very unusual occurrence in Canada. There are cases of children being abducted but it is most often by a family member or relative involved in a custodial dispute.

What was interesting is that the boy was returned to his family yesterday, unharmed, and by news reports, almost entirely unaware that anything bad happened. 

The specific details of this case aside, I was reminded of something that comes up with research ethics when it comes to longitudinal studies involving children who one might want to track into adulthood. Ethics boards are often remiss to allow researchers to engage with children and then find them again later and engage with them as adults. In the first instance their participation is largely a matter of substitute consent (parents agree for their child to participate) and the follow-up is of direct consent (participant agrees for him/herself). The trick and interesting thing is that children don’t always know they are in or were part of a study to begin with so asking them for follow-up is only slightly removed from asking them for the first time.

Why don’t they remember? Is it that they never knew they were part of a study? How could they not know that they were part of your data set?

The fact is that we forget many more things than we actively remember. But forgetting, of course, is not total or absolute. It is always relative and much more like dampening than erasure. 

Perhaps the boy who was abducted will respond by way of behavioural changes or react to triggers that he was not aware of. Perhaps he will never know again because he interpreted this experience differently from the inside than we do from the outside. Or perhaps forgetting is a way in which to integrate the things that are not instrumental in our worldview or daily lives – relegating them to the structure of invisibility (maybe even what Bordieu called habitus) that informs how we confront the world.

I know for me, my childhood plays out in my daily life despite the fact that I’d be hard pressed to recall any specific details of anything (let alone major events) from any time before I was about 7 or 8.