Jerome Groopman writes: I began writing these words on what appeared to be an unremarkable Sunday morning. Shortly before sunrise, the bedroom still dim, I awoke and quietly made my way to the kitchen, careful not to disturb my still-sleeping wife. The dark-roast coffee was retrieved from its place in the pantry, four scoops then placed in a filter. While the coffee was brewing, I picked up The New York Times at the door. Scanning the front page, my eyes rested on an article mentioning Svoboda, the far-right Ukrainian political party (svoboda, means, I remembered, “freedom”).
I prepared an egg-white omelette and toasted two slices of multigrain bread. After a few sips of coffee, fragments of the night’s dream came to mind: I am rushing to take my final examination in college chemistry, but as I enter the amphitheater where the test is given, no one is there. Am I early? Or in the wrong room? The dream was not new to me. It often occurs before I embark on a project, whether it’s an experiment in the laboratory, a drug to be tested in the clinic, or an article to write on memory.
The start of that Sunday morning seems quite mundane. But when we reflect on the manifold manifestations of memory, the mundane becomes marvelous. Memory is operative not only in recalling the meaning of svoboda, knowing who was sleeping with me in bed, and registering my dream as recurrent, but also in rote tasks: navigating the still-dark bedroom, scooping the coffee, using a knife and fork to eat breakfast. Simple activities of life, hardly noticed, reveal memory as a map, clock, and mirror, vital to our sense of place, time, and person.
This role of memory in virtually every activity of our day is put in sharp focus when it is lost. Su Meck, in I Forgot to Remember, pieces together a fascinating tale of life after suffering head trauma as a young mother. A ceiling fan fell and struck her head:
You might wonder how it feels to wake up one morning and not know who you are. I don’t know. The accident didn’t just wipe out all my memories; it hindered me from making new ones for quite some time. I awoke each day to a house full of strangers…. And this wasn’t just a few days. It was weeks before I recognized my boys when they toddled into the room, months before I knew my own telephone number, years before I was able to find my way home from anywhere. I have no more memory of those first several years after the accident than my own kids have of their first years of life.
A computed tomography (CT) scan of Meck’s brain showed swelling over the right frontal area. But neurologists were at a loss to explain the genesis of her amnesia. Memory does not exist in a single site or region of the central nervous system. There are estimated to be 10 to 100 billion neurons in the human brain, each neuron making about one thousand connections to other neurons at the junctions termed synapses. Learning, and then storing what we learn through life, involve intricate changes in the nature and number of these trillions of neuronal connections. But memory is made not only via alterations at the synaptic level. It also involves regional remodeling of parts of our cortex. Our brain is constantly changing in its elaborate circuitry and, to some degree, configuration. [Continue reading…]