Making Sense of Memory (Loss)

During my two-year stint in the Peace Corps, I developed a memory problem, or so it seemed when upon returning home I couldn’t remember how to get to my best friend’s house despite the fact that I could practically drive the route in my sleep before moving to Ecuador. “Did you really use your GPS to get here?” my friend asked when I confessed my inability to recall the route, her tone simultaneously incredulous and teasing.

It wasn’t just that I couldn’t remember how to get to her house; I couldn’t seem to remember how to get anywhere. For weeks after returning home, I would blindly turn onto a road, not knowing exactly where it led but sensing that it would somehow get me where I needed to go. I’d gaze with no recognition at houses and farms as I passed by on a narrow back road, assuming I would instinctively know where to turn when I got there. (Luckily, this was often true, although it gave me the distinct sensation of searching for the doorway in a pitch black room, my sight reduced to only what I could see through the narrow beam of my flashlight.) Once, I zoned out while driving, as one is prone to do when surrounded by miles and miles of corn fields, and when coming back to the present moment, I couldn’t remember where I was.  Rolling along at 60 miles per hour, I squeezed my fingers a bit tighter around the steering wheel and kept driving until a landmark reminded me of my current location and my future destination. It was startling, to say the least.

In addition to general directions, I forgot the names of former classmates (even those with whom I spent a great deal of time), certain English words and phrases like “flight attendant” and “accomplish” and “take advantage,” where to find things in my childhood home, what 60 miles per hour feels like on flat land, and how to make small talk in English. I was especially concerned to find that, in addition to these relatively minor details, I had apparently forgotten memorable moments that my friends could still recount with great clarity.  “Remember when…” they’d start and I’d shuffle through my memories looking for remnants of such events, usually finding nothing but endless darkness. As they continued to describe such and such trip or concert or gathering, a certain detail would sometimes jog my memory and it would all come rushing back to me in a great flood of sights and sounds, like a sudden revelation. But more often than not, I would find myself listening to these memories, which explicitly featured me, as if I had never been there at all. More and more, I had the sensation of living outside of myself. This is how it must feel to have amnesia, I would think. Hearing someone describe yourself to yourself as if you are a character in a story you’ve never heard.  More often, my reaction consisted of a kind of detached hysteria.  I’m losing it, I would think. This is how my spiral into total memory loss begins.

Memory loss is a very real and present problem in my family. There are four people in my family with neurodegenarative diseases, two of which have suffered memory impairment of varying severity. The idea of legitimately losing my memory terrifies me—who are you if not a compilation of your memories?—and as such, it’s something I actively worry about. So I decided to “reconnect” with my former self, even though I wasn’t quite sure what that should entail; I drove past my childhood home, my high school, and my old hangouts. I listened keenly to my friends tell stories of memorable moments from high school, college, and graduate school. I looked at pictures and read old emails I had absentmindedly filed away before and during Peace Corps. And somewhere along the way I also picked up Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein.

You’ve likely heard of Joshua Foer before. He is one third of the famous Foer trio, all of whom are known for their practically prodigious literary and  journalistic accomplishments. He also won the U.S.A. Memory Championship in 2006, an experience that serves as the basis for his hugely successful first book. I was in Ecuador when Moonwalking with Einstein hit the shelves; at a time when I was paying by the minute at a local internet cafe and therefore more likely to be frantically writing emails or uploading blog posts than perusing U.S. new sources, Moonwalking with Einstein was so widely featured, critiqued, and discussed in U.S. publications that even I took notice of it. So it’s no surprise that two weeks into my reading challenge I found myself swiping through a Kindle edition of Foer’s book as my morning train bumbled towards downtown.

From the beginning, I was completely enthralled by Foer’s book, which opens on the final round of one of the world’s biggest memory competitions.  Much to his surprise and everyone else’s, Foer finds himself competing alongside dedicated “memory athletes” to claim the U.S. title. In the midst of vivid descriptions of his eccentric competitors, the tense competition that brings them all together, and an extended list of things the author regularly forgot previous to his memory training, Foer lays out his overarching reason for writing the book: 

I had once read that the average person squanders about forty days a year compensating for things he or she has forgotten…. Every day there seems to be more to remember…. With a memory like [that of a mental athlete], I imagined, life would be qualitatively different—and better.

I nodded as I dragged my finger across my Kindle screen, imagining how much better life would be if I could remember anything in the gray period that extends past the moment I landed in Ecuador three years ago.  

Using the U.S.A. Memory Championship and his personal memory training as the book’s frame, Foer discusses the brain’s many mysterious properties, how memories are made and then haphazardly stored away, the varied and powerful capabilities of our own minds, and why sometimes it is necessary to forget. After reading the first couple chapters, I already had great insight into my own memory loss.  As Foer explains, memories are composed of neurological connections, that is the synaptic links that are formed between one neuron and another. We also remember things by placing them in a web of other memories, so the more often we recall a memory, the more concrete and stable those synaptic connections between memories become.  According to Foer,

The nonlinear associative nature of our brains makes it impossible for us to consciously search our memories in an orderly way. A memory only pops directly into consciousness if it is cued by some other thought or perception–some other node in the nearly limitless interconnected web. So when a memory goes missing or a name gets caught on the tip of the tongue, hunting down can be frustrating and often futile.” But there is hope: “Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged.

No wonder I can’t seem to remember much of my pre-Peace Corps life, I thought. The web of neurons comprising my pre-Peace Corps memories hadn’t been activated much before I moved home. How often during my Peace Corps service had I thought about “that one time sophomore year” when my friend dressed up as the Pope and invaded my dorm room? Or the touring Broadway show I saw with my mom before leaving the country? Or those hot, sticky summers during high school when I worked the friers at my small-town burger joint? There were certainly no details or points of recognition in Ecuador to prompt me to do so. Which also made me wonder: how long will it be before I forget the finer moments of my Ecuadorian life, now that there are very few details or environmental cues to trigger my memories of them?

As I sped through the book, I was continually surprised by the ways in which Foer’s research and observations touched my life. He tells the story of EP, an older man who, like my grandmother, can’t make new memories or remember the past experiences that shaped him, but somehow still maintains his genial personality and sense of self. Foer also describes the visual memory techniques he laboriously studied for months, revealing how said techniques not only relate to creativity but have the capacity to make us more creative. As I flipped from page to page, I suddenly found myself contemplating the many ways that learning these memory techniques could, as Foer said, improve the quality of my life.

Perhaps most interesting was Foer’s explanation of chronological landmarks and how they shape the way we perceive our own lives. Foer writes,

Our lives are structured by our memories of events. Event X happened just before the big Paris vacation. I was doing Y in the first summer after I learned to drive. Z happened the weekend after I landed my first job. We remember events by positioning them in time relative to other events.

As I examined my memories of Ecuador and my life before, I found that it was true; my strongest memories are always positioned in relation to another monumental occurrence. Before embarking on my great Peace Corps adventures, for example, my family and I vacationed in Florida; my memories of the hot sand, the bike ride I took with my sister and mother on a blinding sunny day, the cool, hotel air conditioning that enveloped my tired and sunburnt body afterwards are unparalleled by other vacation memories. By creating chronological landmarks, that is noteworthy memories usually comprised of major life moments—a big move, an engagement or a breakup, your first day at your “big boy” job, for example—we create the perception of an elongated life. As Foer says,

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it….Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

Looking back, my two years of Peace Corps certainly do seem quite long, perhaps because every day I was doing something new and novel: learning more about Ecuadorian culture, traveling to a new, exotic (to me) locale, trying new foods, or facing challenges I had never even conceived of before.

By the time I finished Foer’s book, I had a whole new perspective on my life then and now. I reflect more on what I’ve learned in my first four months at my new job, I purposely create  novel experiences to break up my day to day, and I relive good (and sometimes even bad) memories in an effort to cement them in my mind.  After all, who doesn’t want a life that feels longer and more fully lived, even if we are simply changing our perception rather than adding extra years? 

On a final note: although scientists can document and track the firing of neurons through various brain scans, we still have no scientific evidence of memory. In other words, scientists have never been able to capture an image of memory on scans.  Have you ever thought about what a memory looks like? I certainly hadn’t, but I have on many occasions since then, which is perhaps evidence that Moonwalking with Einstein is nothing if not mind-blowing (corny pun intended). 

Intrigued? Check out Foer’s TED talk!

Do you have a great book recommendation? Feel free to leave it in the comments section!