Sunday, June 13, 2004

Some Meditations on Memory

This is not an essay, meaning an organized sequence of thoughts with a well defined beginning, middle and end used to advance some point or argument. This is a meditation meaning that it's a semi-structured sequence of thoughts on a given topic. It has neither a thesis nor a conclusion. There are quite a few observations but no arguments. If you are expecting an essay, you may find yourself at a loss to understand what I am doing.

When I was eleven years old, I fell ill with a condition called Kawasaki's Syndrome. The exact cause of the disease remains unknown. What is known is that it attacks the lymph system and can lead to cardiac problems. One of the most dominant symptoms is a high fever. For a period of nearly a month, I had a temperature that was rarely lower than 100 degrees which would, occasionally, go as high as 105 degrees. Although I recovered from the disease, the fever took its toll on my memory.

There are broad swaths of my childhood that I simply do not remember. I don't have any recollection of my second grade teacher and only the vaguest one's of my first and fourth grade teachers. I don't remember very many of the friends that I had from before I was ten and have even less in the way of emotional associations to go with those memories. Shortly after my release, we went to see my aunt Mary-Lou and I simply did not remember her at all (she thought that I was just being rude).

When we think about memory, we have a tendency to think of it as being something like a videotape. This is utterly wrong. Sometimes we think of it as being like a filing cabinet. This isn't as wrong, be its still grossly inaccurate. Some of us prefer to use computer analogies, comparing it to a hard drive or, perhaps, to the Web. This can be much closer but that can easily mislead us. In truth, memory isn't like anything else other than itself.

The biggest fallacy of memory is that memories are like snapshots. They are instants and events that have been imprinted upon our brain. While we may concede that we occasionally misremember something or forget it outright, we tend to think of our memories as being reasonably stable. This is far from the truth. Even old, established memories are subject to constant revision.

Forensic scientists have long known that eyewitness accounts are the least accurate source of information about a crime, contrary to the weight that juries give to eyewitnesses. One of the most shocking demonstrations of this unreliability is the fact DNA evidence has been used to exonerate people who have been positively identified by rape victims. To put that plainly, people who have been raped have actually misremembered their rapists. If any event should burn itself into one's mind, that should be it and yet even that sort of memory can suffer revision to accord to one's expectations.

Yet, in spite of its basic unreliability, memory is, above all, the single thing that most profoundly affects our sense of identity. If you were to sneak into my room and erase all of my memories and replace them with the memories of Princess Margaret, I would wake up believing that I was her – and confused as to how I ended up in a strange person's body. If my memories had truly been overwritten with her's, it would be a fine philosophical question to ask if I was still, in fact, me or whether I was some sort of mental clone of Margaret.

During the months and years that followed my recovery from Kawasaki's Syndrome, I began to wonder if I was, in fact, the same person that I had been before the disease. When my relatives would talk about things that I had done when I was younger, it often seemed like they were talking about someone else, entirely. They spoke of someone who was more prone to exuberance, for one thing. Someone who was talkative and, if not quite outgoing, at least more open to expression. I had to ask myself whether this other person was, indeed, me or whether I had become a kind of changeling.

Over the years, I have filled in enough of the gaps (often indirectly through the memories of others) to get a sense that there is a continuity of personality. I think that having my memories damaged did lead to certain changes in my personality but I think that my core persona persisted. Many of the gross changes to my personality can probably be accounted for by puberty. Never the less, it makes me wonder what a more serious loss of memory would be like. What is it like to have Alzheimer's, for instance?

Is it like being trapped in some sort of temporal labyrinth where everything seems out of place and out of time? Do you even realize that you're suffering through it, or is the loss of new memories so profound that you're always on the verge of being confused but never quite there? Is it more a horror or a haze?

It is wrong to think of memory as a monolithic thing. There are at least four different types of memory. There is sensory memory which covers our immediate experiences. There is working memory which represents the amount of information that we can hold in our heads at one time. There is short term memory which covers the range of time from a few seconds out to a few minutes or so (the exact range is a subject of debate). Finally, there is long term memory which can span a full lifetime.

Movies and books have conditioned us to think of memories as linear narratives. In point of fact, memories are not really replays as much as reconstructions. The brain remembers (more or less) what happened and it puts together ad hoc representations of those events when we try to recall them. Memory is rarely linear. We tend to jump around our memories as one association triggers another, then another, and other in an unending cascade of connections. The ability to present your memories as an episodic narrative is, in fact, a talent which many people lack.

At the best of times, my memories are like free floating sketches. I am not at all good at presenting events in a chronological order. My overall sense of the passage of time is chancy. When talking about events from my childhood, I'll typically say that they happened when I was seven. Judging by my stories, nothing ever happened to me when I was six, eight, nine, or ten and only a few things happened to me when I was five. Since I really can't recall how old I was when I experienced most of the events of my childhood, seven is just a convenient sort of place marker. When talking about events in my adult life, I'll typically say that they happened either five or ten years ago, or when I was eighteen or twenty, for much the same reason. There are only a handful of events that I can specifically place in time.

During the 90s, there were wide spread reports of cases of child abuse and even ritualistic Satanic abuse. The bulk of these reports came from patients who had apparently recovered memories during the course of psychiatric therapy. Some of these memories were recovered via hypnosis while others were recovered through psychoanalytic techniques. Many people were charged with very serious crimes on the basis of these recovered memories. Quite a few of those people went to prison and even those who weren't convicted often had their lives and careers torn apart by the accusations.

Even from the start, there was considerable skepticism regarding the veracity of recovered memories. In the vast majority of cases, there was no independent corroboration for the memories. Some of the claims, especially the claims of ritual satanic abuse, were so outlandish as to be implausible. In the time since then, a lot of research has gone into the techniques used to recover memories. Empirical studies have demonstrated that it is frighteningly easy for a therapist to inadvertently (or deliberately) implant a contrafactual memory in a patient. It has been further noted that survivors of traumatic events, such a torture and rape, typically have problems forgetting the events as opposed to remembering them.

My earliest memory may well be a chimera. One day as I was getting very, very stoned (an indulgence that I have since given up), I had a vivid memory of myself going up to a bed and smelling the covers. The bed was as high as I was and I was toddling as opposed to walking. In my memory, the only thing going through my mind was a curiously non-verbal desire to walk forward.

The only universally recognized effect of THC on memory function is that it temporarily impairs short term memory. Some studies have suggested that there may be some permanent impairment to short term memory and, perhaps, to long term memory as well (although the studies that have yielded those results have used controversial methodologies). There is absolutely nothing in the literature that indicates that THC can result in the recovery of memories. It is, however, well established that THC is psychoactive and that it can cause mild hallucinations. Given this, parsimony would suggest that I did not have a true memory. There is just one thing that makes me hesitant to agree with this – in my memory, when I reached the sheets I smelled them. As far back as I can remember, my sense of smell has been somewhat "dim". I don't smell as clearly or as accurately as other people do. In this memory, I could not only smell the cotton in the sheets, but it was an absolutely intense and utterly pure smell. Outside of this memory, I have never had that sort of sensation. Does this mean it really happened? Of course it does not. Never the less, I find it hard to dismiss on a very basic emotional level even as I must dismiss it intellectually.

Some people suggest that we have souls. Some make the further suggestion that these souls migrate from body to body in a succession of births, deaths and rebirths. It is believed that when this happens, the souls do not retain their memories excepting only, perhaps, the vaguest ghosts of experience. To me, that is no different than death as I understand it. If something survives me but it has no memory of me, it may as well be a kidney or a lung for all that I would consider it a representative of my self. I am my memories. As my memories change, so do I. As my memories fade, so do I. When my memories die, so, I think, shall I.

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