We are our memories

26 Sep

     Our survival depends on our ability to locate ourselves in time and space. We synthesize information from sensory inputs and internal states to map our position in the three dimensional world of space, but to locate ourselves in the fourth dimension of time we need powers of memory and anticipation.

     The information we hold in memory scaffolds our sense of continuity in life. It holds hard lessons learned and the material for agreeable nostalgia. It allows us to reflect on the turning points in our lives and recollect both the sweet and the bitter. It tells us friend from enemy and holds the names of our kin. It is the repository of the skills that allow us to make a living and ride a bicycle. It is where our beliefs, illusions, regrets, accomplishments, ambitions, and inclinations are stored. When poet John Donne asked “tell me where all past years are,” he invoked the powerful mystery of time and memory. Our past exists only in our memory and  to some large extent we are our memories. Frau Auguste D., the first individual to be identified as having Alzheimer’s disease, told psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer “I have lost myself.” 

     It is this identity of self and memory that makes forgetting so frightening. As we age we worry about decline into dementia, where the damaged brain fails even elementary memory tasks. People with Alzheimer’s disease frequently do not know where they are, can not recognize loved ones, and often inhabit a world of confusion and despair.

     As life expectancy increases so does the number of people diagnosed with dementia. It is likely that every reader has encountered some one suffering from clinical memory loss. We can not help but worry that this could be our fate. We scan the obituary page for people our same age, we examine our selves for evidence of decline. Did we forget our keys again? Did we forget the name of the last book we read? Have I told this story before, and will I be seen as an aging bore by people too kind to tell me they have heard it all previously? 

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