The Elusiveness of Memory
“Has it ever struck you,” playwright Tennessee Williams wrote, “that life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going?” As if in counterpoint, Barbra Streisand has sung of memory’s “scattered pictures” in “The Way We Were,” wondering, “Has time rewritten every line?” Scientists, memoirists, novelists and filmmakers have all explored memory—the strange, intriguing shadow that twines so closely with who we are.
Eric Kandel’s autobiography, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind, discusses his “leap of faith” in choosing two lifelong partners. One was an “extremely attractive and intellectually stimulating” sociologist, whom he married in 1956. The second was the giant sea slug (genus Aplysia), which, thanks to its nervous system’s simple mechanics and large cells, has subsequently played a crucial role in brain research. In assessing this marine invertebrate, Kandel quotes neurobiologist William “Chip” Quinn’s tongue-in-cheek description of an ideal test subject, which should have “no more than three genes, be able to play the cello or at least recite classical Greek and learn these tasks with a nervous system containing only 10 large, differently colored and therefore easily recognizable neurons.”
Published when he was 76, Kandel’s book explores his lifetime recollections and explains his research into the brain’s biological workings, especially the physiology of memory. Initially interested in pinpointing the cerebral locations of the id, ego and superego, as conceived by Sigmund Freud, Kandel decided to specialize when a teacher advised him to “look at the brain one cell at a time.” In 2000 Kandel and two colleagues received a Nobel Prize for their research.
Neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel calls memory “mental time travel” that allows one to return to the “sights, sounds and smells” of a past event. His memoir’s title, In Search of Memory, refers not just to a journey into personal recollection but also to his investigations into the biology of that process. Kandel finds insight in the works of Tennessee Williams, William James and other writers as he tries to unlock the “elaborate neural circuitry of the hippocampus” and to answer novelist Virginia Woolf’s question, “Why do [certain memories] survive undamaged year after year unless they are made of something comparatively permanent?”
Marcel Proust coined the term memoire involontaire (“involuntary memory”) to describe a sensual, encompassing flood of recollection providing a return to the “essence of the past,” not simply a recalling of facts. In the novel In Search of Lost Time (À la Recherche du Temps Perdu), Proust’s narrator encounters this phenomenon when he dips a small cake into his tea and the taste transports him back to a childhood scenario. Captivated by the richness of such experiences, Kandel set out to discover the “biological processes [that] enable me to review my own history with such emotional vividness.”
Novelist Vladimir Nabokov put his memoir through three editions, describing the third, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, as a “re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories.” (He wrote the 1951 original in English and revised it in 1954 while translating it into his native Russian; an expanded edition appeared in 1966.) Nabokov admitted to cherry-picking his facts and to inaccuracies—his younger mind, when taking in the initial experiences, “afford[ed] memory a slippery hold.” Perhaps he should have subtitled the book “An Apologia,” a common designation for the earliest autobiographies.
Nabokov called Speak, Memory a “literary approach to my own past. There is some precedent for it in the novel, in Proust.” Both authors sought to leap into the past and relive its stories, but sensualist Proust believed memories “prompted only by an exercise of the will, by my intellectual memory…preserve nothing of the past itself.” Nabokov filled gaps in exactly the manner the French novelist rejected, explaining how “by means of intense concentration, the neutral smudge might be forced to come into beautiful focus.” For Proust, these efforts failed: “I should never have had any wish to ponder over [such] residue.”
Eric Kandel still vividly remembers events that occurred in 1938, two days after his ninth birthday, when Nazis detained his father and pillaged his family’s Vienna home during Kristallnacht, an anti-Jewish pogrom. Detailed recollections around such emotionally charged occasions—more recent examples are the day President Kennedy was killed and September 11, 2001—are called flashbulb memories.
Vladimir Nabokov’s artfully unreliable autobiography, Speak, Memory, which he revised to correct a “series of remarkably consistent chronological blunders,” hints at the tricks the mind plays when, “with a sharp and merry blast…, childhood calls [us] back.” Neurologist Oliver Sacks appropriates Nabokov’s title for an essay about his own childhood memories of two London bombings during World War II. Both have flashbulb quality—“vivid, detailed and concrete,” as he describes them—but Sacks learns he wasn’t even present for the second; he had only been told about it. Memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus has demonstrated how easily memories can be implanted using the “lost-in-the-mall technique,” in which subjects who were told they had been lost in a shopping center as children later “remember” the event. “It is startling to realize,” Sacks says, “that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened.”
“To be useful, a memory has to be recalled,” neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel writes. The brain must first set down a short-term memory, then solidify and store it for the long haul. The physiological processes that make our memories stick are complex, involving neurons, gene activation, chemical actions and other mechanisms. Kandel’s route to discovering these processes was paved in part by psychologist Brenda Milner’s work with H.M., a patient who had lost the ability to form new memories after he underwent brain surgery for epilepsy in 1953. H.M. was able to acquire new motor skills, although he couldn’t remember the process of learning them. Through her work with H.M., Milner clarified distinctions in long- and short-term memory and showed that different forms of learning involve divergent locations and systems in the brain.
Leonard Shelby, the protagonist of Memento, suffers from a similar type of amnesia after a head injury and, like H.M., retains long-term memory from before the trauma. Leonard tells a story about a memory-impaired acquaintance, Sammy, who can’t learn despite repeated instruction—an apparent reference to Milner’s work with H.M. But Leonard is no scientist, and an assumption he makes—that Sammy is faking—has a tragic outcome.
Marcel Proust’s narrator in Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, welcomes a memory as a “rope let down from heaven to draw me up out of the abyss of not-being.” That link between memory and selfhood has been explored frequently in literature and film. In The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) must piece together his past after waking up on a fishing vessel with two bullet wounds, a Swiss bank account number, a facility with languages and retrograde amnesia: He doesn’t know who he is or what happened to him. Bourne lacks explicit memory (i.e., conscious, intentional recall), but his implicit, or unconscious, memory is intact. The abilities he discovers he has—to tie complex knots, handle a gun, grapple with assailants—help solve the mystery of his true identity as a CIA assassin.
In contrast to Bourne, Memento’s Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) has anterograde amnesia: He recalls the past but can’t remember anything new. His short-term memory loss fragments the narrative and our understanding of his identity. Only at movie’s end (the story unfolds in reverse) do we see how far Leonard has manipulated fact and memory to hide his cold-blooded nature.
In Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Joshua Foer compares a man with anterograde amnesia to a “camcorder without a working tape head. He sees, but he doesn’t record.” The protagonist of Memento, Leonard Shelby, compensates for this problem by planting clues as reminders of things his brain won’t retain. He jots notes on Polaroids and tattoos messages on his body as “mementos” of who people are, where he lives and what his mission is—to find and kill the person who murdered his wife.
Foer’s book discusses memorization techniques he learned for competitions, some no less strange than Leonard’s. The “method of loci,” for example, used since ancient, preliterate times when memorization was a necessary skill, entails building “memory palaces” in the brain and furnishing them with the items to be memorized, along with some bizarre, unforgettable associations that fix the items in the mind’s eye. Foer’s title refers to a memory palace he invented to memorize the order of a deck of cards in the 2006 USA Memory Championship, which he went on to win. Foer imagined the physicist Albert Einstein on the dance floor, performing Michael Jackson’s signature backward glissade.
The Bourne Identity is just one of many movies that use sudden-onset amnesia as a plot device. But traumatic memory loss, dramatic as it is, is much rarer than mundane forgetting. In 1885 German philosopher Hermann Ebbinghaus plotted the “forgetting curve” to show how long the brain retains memorized information. His study showed that many facts are forgotten within an hour, and the decline in retention continues for about a month. Additionally, human memory deteriorates with age (gently termed “benign senescent forgetfulness”) and with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, which drives the plots of the movies Away From Her (2006) and The Notebook (2004), both centering on amnesiac women and their patient husbands.
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play ex-lovers whose relationship is expunged from their brains. It’s pure science fiction…or it was. “Memory enhancing and erasing is going to come,” says Todd Sacktor, a former colleague of Eric Kandel, author of In Search of Memory. Sacktor is working on a drug that promises to do both. “And when it does, society is going to have to use the tool wisely. The history of the world does not give complete optimism about that.”