Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Seven Thousand Sins of Memory

It’s convenient that Dan Schacter put labels on the failure of memory—transience, absent mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias and persistence—but we have learned that nothing with the brain is ever as clear cut as that. Everything is twined together, memory, a convoluted mass of infinite possible failures, rather than just those seven.

The brain has various areas that contribute to memory, but the separate parts work as teammates. It is completely understandable that H.M. lost his ability to form new memories after a part of his brain was removed to relieve him of his epileptic fits. The LeDoux reading explored the scientific part of memory loss, explaining how scientists would tweak the brain to provoke memory failure in animals (was I the only one saddened at the thought of the animals having their brain functions stolen from them?). It made me wonder about memory versus learning. Some things we know are innate and others are escorted by memory to be processed, like learning preference of taste and being conditioned. But how much of learning has to do with our memory? And concerning, let’s say, schoolwork, where does memorizing information transfer into having the information be learned? It’s like no matter how far our research and data advances, we would still never know enough about how our brains work.

“In the Shadow of Memory” and “The Missing World” dealt with the much more humanistic side of injury/disease/illness and helplessness of memory loss. Floyd Skloot can find the humor in his predicament and on occasion, use it to his advantage (he’s a writer and his word substitutions are really quite poetic) but I suppose he would have to be after such a long time. I was only two days old when his brain infection set in and began to morph his life, so I keep trying to fathom the length of my life being the length of readjustment to his memory loss and it seems impossible. Despite living the healthiest life he could, (he ran like five miles a day without any problems!) he still was affected by some unexpected variable, which reinstates how frightening life can be; things just come at you without warning. He transformed completely, not necessarily for better or worse (although I find it incredibly interesting that his wife likes the newer version of her husband), but it’s like having a second life. He became slower-paced, calmer, more relaxed, and extraordinarily sensitive— completely opposite of his first self.

Credit this to Elizabeth, but isn’t it ironic that “In the Shadow of Memory” is a memoir by someone that lost his memory? It’s interesting to read his rich language and try to decipher what is reality and what seems like fantasy or a product of his own failure to reproduce memories. Also, it is really comforting to finally see the personal side of these horror stories because Luria and Sacks focused mostly on the patient-doctor clinical version of brain dysfunctions. Hazel in “The Missing World” barely seems affected (due to her lack of awareness) in comparison to how the lives of her friends and family have been drastically altered. I will admit, I felt the way Matt did at first, trying to sift through the narratives for concrete facts because I had grown accustomed to the style that Luria and Sacks executed stories in. But I finally relaxed and took a backseat to witness the seven thousand sins of memory, because so much more than one person or life is at stake when it comes to living after an “insult”.

1 comment:

Hilary said...

One thing I find particularly striking in "The Shadow of Memory" is, as Skloot puts it, the remembrance of forgetting. He can write about the things that he does not remember, how quickly amnesia steals them from his grasp, so fluently that you wonder how he can recall in his writing exactly what it was he forgot. He has the awareness of his condition, whereas Hazel in The Missing World does not; she has to rely on Jonathan to interpret for her the way things used to be.

Skloot and Hazel's choice of romantic partners is also therefore important; while Skloot's wife Beverly finds a deeper appreciation and love for him through her acceptance of his condition, Jonathan cruelly attempts to isolate and manipulate Hazel into a dreamworld of his creation, an opportunity for him to literally re-write her memories. Having your partner lose all memory of your transgressions, so you can start on an ostensibly even footing without the hanging specter of past mistakes, may seem tempting, but to imprison them against their will, denying them the ability to recover these memories, is almost unfathomably cruel.

One aspect that is explored in both of the readings, as it has been through the course, is the human cost of brain damage. LeDoux, as always, continues to focus on the mechanistic, while we as readers and empathetic humans strive to understand, to fit ourselves into these twisted mental frameworks. Skloot manages to regain some semblance of a normal life, even if he hilariously and sadly narrates his slip-ups; he is aware that he is wrong and yet cannot stop himself from making these errors. His body is betraying him and his mind is a suspect instrument at best, and while Skloot manages to regain his functionality, Hazel is callously denied this chance. Amnesia becomes a blessing for Skloot, who gains a richer appreciation of his world, peaceful country life, and loving wife, but it has become a nightmare for a young woman trapped in a life she did not want with a controlling and blinkered "lover" trying to author it all over for her.