I can think of no worse thing to happen to a person than to lose one’s memory. The dreadful scourge of Alzheimer’s, which eventually took the life of my father, has to be far worse for anyone than the myriad diseases and deteriorative conditions that afflict the elderly. Personally I would prefer to be bedridden and immobile and still retain my mental faculties than be the picture of good health with a full head of still brown hair and not recognize either myself or my loved ones and not recall any of my personal history, which describes my father’s condition before he succumbed to a merciful death

Memory is such an amazing and necessary quality. It makes you alive by placing you solidly along a continuum of life experiences. And even more amazing is how it works. I don’t know what the scientific names for them are but I’ll simply call them short term memory and long term memory.  At night when I am ready to go to sleep I often review the duties I should have completed to be ready for tomorrow.  Did I make the coffee? Yes, I recall rinsing out the carafe, filling it with water and pouring the right amount into the chamber. I also remember specifically being extra careful to make the measurer level with coffee since it was a bit strong yesterday. Did I take my pills? Yes, I recall filling a glass of water and taking them. Are my clothes ready for when I get up? Yes, tomorrow I plan to exercise downstairs, so my shorts, t-shirt and sweatshirt are ready, and my sneakers are where they should be. OK, I remembered all those events. But will I remember them tomorrow or the next day? No, absolutely not, because somehow my brain says that I shouldn’t have to. Why would I remember these specific events for longer than a day? Not necessary, so I am allowed to forget them. So memories of these routine activities are soon gone and gone forever, making room apparently for activities and events of greater importance or more proximate in time

Apparently there is also something that we could call “temporary memory” as distinct from “short term memory” – those memories that our brain “dumps” periodically to make room for more permanent memories. Short term memory contains those incidents, feelings, impressions that one can remember from last week or last month, that may or may not become part of long term memory, as opposed to all the minutiae of routines, incidents, feelings, impressions, smells, etc that clutter our brains for a day or two and then are forgotten. 

All memories when first formed are “short-term”.  But over time, the physical representation of the memory in the brain becomes more stable through a process known as called consolidation. The stabilized memories then become “long-term” memories. 

And my long term memory still is okay. When it’s quiet and there are no distractions and I am up alone in the early morning, my long term memory still functions quite well. Those childhood memories and impressions are still there. Those names of people I knew long ago, or worked with, still come back just fine. Yes, some names and faces are growing hazier with the passage of so much time (I’m 79 now), but for most purposes, my long term memory is working as well as my short term memory.

We are our memories. Our memories are our existence. Without our memories we are nothing. Our personalities and mannerisms are linked to memory. We are composed of all those events lodged in our memories. All those events – our childhood, our education, the trauma, the struggles, the losses and victories, come together and truly make us who we are. If all this is obliterated by disease or other incident, we essentially cease to be. We are nothing, although still perhaps still physically whole, because that essential quality, memory, is missing.

All of us, the children of Charles Ralph Friedly, our father, have to be very conscious of memory, I think, because of how Dad died. His wife, our mother, saw his memory and personality fade. She observed the growing helplessness and panic as he steadily lost the essence of himself. I am always asking myself (and I am sure my brothers and sister do the same) – can I remember what happened yesterday, the day before that? How about last week, last month? And do I remember the year before last? Hmmm, yes I can so for the time being I can rest easy. I don’t have Alzheimer’s…at least not yet. Yet, like most elderly people, there are times when I can’t remember the names of certain individuals, so I’m content to refer to that person for the time being as “what’s his name?’. Also, the names of certain objects escape me from time to time. So I’ll blurt out some nonsensical sentence like, “Does what’s his name still have that thing he bought years ago?” Or since these times are becoming somewhat more numerous, this inquiry becomes a more routine “Does whatsizname still have that whatchamacallit?” Yes, I know, a bit ridiculous but that’s old age coming on. I don’t think that it means the beginning of Alzheimer’s.

There was one time in my recent life, however, that I thought that my brain might be succumbing to some early signs of this dreadful condition. While in my last job, I experienced what I can only describe as a total memory blackout. The immediate circumstances I can’t recall. I may have been sitting in my office at my desk alone, shuffling through some papers or preparing to make a phone call. Or I might have been talking to someone sitting across from me or I may have been on the phone. But suddenly I was terrorized by the realization that I didn’t know who I was, where I was or what I was doing. I couldn’t even remember my own name. Some horrible mental cloud had momentarily obscured my actual existence. I had to look at some papers on my desk to find out my name, had to get my drivers license out of my wallet to see my face and realize that person’s face was really me. Yet nothing really clicked. The association of the name on the letter or the face and name on the driver’s license, the people in the family pictures on my desk, with me, the guy sitting helplessly at that desk, just was not there. The feeling of terror and shock that I didn’t know who I was, where I was and was suddenly nameless, was indescribable. My memory had stopped. Thank God, after a few minutes, this horrible feeling passed and all became normal again. But the experience was truly terrifying and I thought for awhile that this could mean the beginning for me of what happened to my father. 

Looking back, I think that this frightening experience could have been the result of some kind of momentary blockage of blood flow in my brain. Maybe it was caused by something I ate, or didn’t eat. Maybe all those scotches at the end of the day were catching up with me. All kinds of things ran through my mind. But really I think that the extreme tension and stress I was experiencing at that time on my job were the real cause. I don’t know precisely how stress affects the brain and memory but it certainly can’t be good. So sifting through all the potential causes, this seems the most likely. I can’t begin to describe that period of time on this terrible job, in fact, over the several years since, I have done my best to forget it. But the stress to which I was subjected undoubtedly took a temporary toll on my health, both physical and mental. 

As we get older, we seem to have more and more memory lapses or absent mindedness that worry us a great deal. However, most of these problems are commonplace and should not be a cause for worry. And we all have experienced them. A short article in an AARP publication lists them:

  • Blocking – can’t think of the name of that person or book or movie even though it’s right on the tip of my tongue.
  • Scrambling – remembering most of an event but not sure how or when it happened.
  • Fading away – you think you should remember something but cannot because too much time has elapsed and memory has been “swept away” by the brain to make room for more.
  • Struggling for retrieval – just met someone and already can’t remember the name, or the name of that movie or book you’re trying to recommend.
  • Muddled multitasking – getting so involved in a task that the first or second one is forgotten, e.g. something boiling away or overcooked on the stove while you are doing something else. 

And then there is another interesting aspect to memory that was described in an article in the New York Review of Books , which I resurrected from my files to reference for this article – the phenomenon of “reconstructive memory”. This occurs when there is an incident in our past which may have indeed happened, but over time, we tend to inadvertently embellish with a little bit of fiction – details that fit the general configuration of that central memory and perhaps enhance it. Sometimes these embellishments add to the notability or daring of the deed or occurrence we remember, or they perhaps they are gathered and attached to that specific memory in order to enhance our perceptions of ourselves. Often these fabrications are exposed when siblings or friends may recall an event at which they were present in totally different ways. Their respective memories are not necessarily faulty: it’s just that their memories of this single event have been enhanced, diminished, or detailed by each’s idiosyncratic personal fictions. Or, as the author Oliver Sacks related, a particular memory may not be one’s own at all but may be adopted from another, as long as it fits neatly into a previous memory structure of sufficient strength and importance.

I have experienced this phenomenon several times myself. Detailed memories surrounding a certain traumatic event in my childhood or early adulthood have proven to be fallacious or at least richly embellished, since they were perceived in strikingly different ways by siblings or others present during the occurrence. I have lived with the notion that certain of my vivid memories are immutable and have been surprised by the fact that they are malleable. One group of such memories relate to Hurricane Hazel which struck the eastern seaboard, including my state of New Jersey in 1954 when I was 12 years old. My memories of a tall chimney crashing down on the house yet not penetrating the roof were refuted because when Hazel smote New Jersey our family no longer lived at that particular house. However, my memories of seeing the WAWZ (our church radio station) transmission towers blown down and lying in the fields was in fact corroborated by others. Perhaps I had mixed my hurricanes up and it was another that took down the chimney when we did in fact live at that house. But what I thought was an accurate recollection simply was not.

Another interesting thing about memory is how we can commit what one might call “accidental” or “unconscious” plagiarism or, certainly more comforting, “legal plagiarism”, when ideas clearly gleaned from others, perhaps from their writing or lectures, find a solid place in our own memories because they fit so well with our own previous experiences. Thus, these ideas, now embraced as our own, are called up to embellish and illustrate our own thought and writing and we never think to attribute them to others. All of us have experienced this phenomenon in one way or another. Particularly, much academic writing must be of this nature. A student of a particular discipline writing about a subject within that discipline is never alone. He may endeavor to attribute certain ideas to others, like all academics should, yet little of his thinking is truly original but is really just what has been distilled from all of his reading over the years and embraced as one’s own. The real challenge is where and how to distinguish and draw a line between what can readily be attributed to another and what is an amalgam of personal experiences and knowledge which cannot now be separated into what is truly personal and what has been gleaned from others.

Thus plagiarism can be honestly accidental. Who knows the sources of the “deep insights” or the “epiphanies” or “revelations” that I experience while thinking and writing in the early morning. Are they my own or have they been derived from something I’ve read earlier and adopted and adapted for my own? They certainly seem to be my own but referring back to the article by Sacks, I’m not really sure. Sacks calls these incidents “auto-plagiarism”, or more precisely, an even more technical term, “cryptomnesia”, which I could not even find in my dictionary. 

Sacks relates a great example of this phenomenon – when George Harrison, of all people, was accused of plagiarism and was actually sued, when his song, “My Sweet Lord” was deemed too similar to another song, “He’s so Fine” by Ronnie Mack, recorded eight years earlier by The Chiffons.  Indeed, listening to them both confirms great similarity in melody and refrain. But apparently the judge in the case, although finding Harrison guilty of plagiarism, generously deemed Harrison’s mistake not deliberate, casting it into the category of accidental or inadvertent plagiarism described above.

It might be useful to tie all of these notions about the malleability of memory, i.e. “reconstructive memory”, “auto” or “accidental” plagiarism together with a great quote from Sacks, offered by Nicole Krauss in her review of his book, Rivers of Consciousness – “There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth…. We have no direct access to historical truth … no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way…. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves — the stories we continually recategorize and refine.”

Sacks’ opinion deals directly with one of the dreadful negative effects of reconstructive memory – the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in criminal convictions. Fully two thirds of wrongful convictions, those overturned by the introduction of DNA evidence, involve faulty eyewitness testimony. In these cases, “reconstructive” memory is faulty and may have been hastily adapted to fit a preconceived idea of the witness’s self importance. 

This phenomenon has been illustrated by tests done on a variety of people. For example, multiple individuals are shown a video of a car crash, yet each observer sees something different than the others. One can’t remember the colors of the cars or which car entered the intersection first; another can’t tell which was going faster, whether a man or woman was driving, who was standing in the intersection or whether a bicycle was actually there, and so on.

Eyewitness memories are usually “contaminated” by the stress endured by someone involved in the incident or by previous remembered experiences. The uncommon and exaggerated excitement or shock of observing a certain occurrence can easily get in the way of accurate recollection of the event. “Lineup” identification processes are similarly fraught and unreliable.

A well documented example was featured in the New York Times a couple of years ago – the dreadful experience of Penny Beerntsen, who misidentified her assailant, resulting in his spending 18 years in prison before being cleared by DNA identification of several hairs of the assailant. The incident was described by Debra Tolchinsky in her short film and in the Netflix series “Making a Murderer”, which features the story of her misidentified assailant without Beerntsen’s perspective.

Before closing this lengthy article I would like to mention several more remarkable characteristic of memory. One is outlined in Claudia Hammon’s fascinating article about time: that without memories of the past, we cannot exist in the present, nor can we predict a future for ourselves. When we think of the future – where we’ll be years hence, what kind of health we will enjoy, what we will be doing – all of this has to be considered in terms of the past and present. Evidently we employ the same part of our brain when considering the past and imagining the future. And it is this that allows us to consider different scenarios of the future before we decide which choice to make or road to take. This ability to simultaneously consider the past, present and future is what makes humans unique and is also what enables us to be creative and conceive and generate works of art. We’ve obviously known about this relationship between the past and the future for a long time, as Hammon reminds us that Aristotle “described memories not as archives of our lives, but as tools for imagining the future”.

And one other fascinating attribute of memory is recounted in Rosenfeld and Ziff’s article “Making Memories”, all based on a review of a book by Luke Dittrich about the famed patient “HM”, who had a part of his brain, specifically parts of the hippocampus removed. “HM”‘s unique condition and especially the nature of his memory loss spawned many useful studies of the brain and memory and the article discusses several of those.

It goes on to state that apparently all memories are subjective, idiosyncratic for the individual and tailored for that person’s unique “self”. In fact, for the memory to work properly it must have created a “self”, an image through which activities and events are actually lived and then remembered. This image of self also includes a three dimensional image of one’s body, dynamic and changing because of our movements, and created from sensory responses to those movements. With our eyes closed we have no problem touching a chosen part of our bodies in any attitude with the finger or hand. This “map” of the body explains why someone will remember a limb that has perhaps been removed and can actually feel it still there and even fancy yet touching it, though gone. The filtering of events through our unique body image ensures that memories of those events are subjective and are ours alone. Another experiencing the same event will over time and space remember it differently because of filtering it through their own self and image.

I have enjoyed this little jaunt “down memory lane” through the miracle and mysteries of memory itself and have found that the selected readings and attempts to digest and relate their content to myself and others dear to me have been stimulating and meaningful. What is rather sobering since I live now in old age is that, regardless of their quality and quantity and their value and meaning to me presently and to others, all those memories are but temporal. Certainly hard to conceive now, with my body and brain still functioning satisfactorily, that at the death of my body in the not too distant future, poof, all those precious memories will disappear.