National Geographic Focuses on Memory
Having watched my mother's mental decline due to Alzheimer's disease, I found National Geographic's feature on memory fascinating in describing the brain's ability to retain key details of our lives. The feature shared the sagas of people on opposite ends of the memory spectrum, and it also had a game to determine short-term memory (I passed), and a 3D diagram of the brain and its function.
One of the individuals featured is EP. Ever since a herpes virus attacked his brain, EP doesn't remember his neighbors or eating breakfast. His long-term memory is limited to events that happened before 1960.
Then there's AJ, who can remember almost every detail of every day of her life. Ask her about a particular event and she can provide a pretty comprehensive description of what she was doing on that day and what was going on in the culture. She even remembers the plot of a TV show from the late 1980s.
So which person would you rather be like? I'm sure that most people who visit this web site would opt to be in AJ's shoes if they had a choice. Yet, surprisingly, she says that having such an extensive memory of her life tends to be a burden. "I remember good, which is very comforting. But I also remember bad - and every bad choice," she said in the article. "And I really don't give myself a break. There are all these forks in the road, moments you have to make a choice, and then it's ten years later, and I'm still beating myself up over them. I don't forgive myself for a lot of things. Your memory is the way it is to protect you. I feel like it just hasn't protected me."
I believe my mother's response would be that these memories (both good and bad) are what defines you as a person. During the two years of having Alzheimer's, Mom's memory weakened so much that she couldn't store new memories (like that she had a new granddaughter) and short-term memories (like what she had for lunch). She also got to the point where she couldn't access long-term memories (like all the trips she took in the United States and internationally). Those memories should have helped her define herself as she aged, but as her brain weakened, she was no longer able to grasp the events that had impacted or were impacting her life, events that had been instrumental in making her into who she was as a human being.