Memories are made of this.

Memory is the mother of all wisdom. Aeschylus

Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.  From the television show The Wonder Years

The memory should be specially taxed in youth, since it is then that it is strongest and most tenacious. But in choosing the things that should be committed to memory the utmost care and forethought must be exercised; as lessons well learnt in youth are never forgotten.  Arthur Schopenhauer

The palest ink is better than the best memory. Chinese Proverb


Many of you have probably seen the 2001 film Memento. It tells the story of a former insurance investigator, Leonard Shelby, who was attacked by a man, who killed his wife and left him with a brain injury that has made him unable to form new memories. It is a powerful, if somewhat confusing film. What you may not know is that there was a tragic case of a man who suffered from just such a condition. His name was Henry Gustav Molaison, although he was better known as HM. In his childhood after being hit by a bicycle rider, HM had suffered from epileptic seizures and William Beecher Scoville, his surgeon, decided to remove the part of his medial-temporal lobes where the storms originated. In this sense the operation was a success but the collateral damage was terrible. HM woke every day with no memory of what had taken  place the day before. You would speak to him and he would forget everything immediately. He had enormous difficulties with the process of consolidation, i.e. converting short-term memories into permanent storage. He, maintained his older memories, those dating back to before the operation.

Sadly he died in 2008, at the age of 82, but HM made a major contribution to medical science. Scientists now know that there are two kinds of systems in the brain for creating new memories. Declarative memory creates records names, faces, and new experiences. It is situated in the hippocampus. Motor learning is subconscious and depends on different brain systems. The example of riding a bike gives a fascinating insight into how memory works. It is explained very succinctly on the Website How Stuff Works

If you’re riding a bike, the memory of how to operate the bike comes from one set of brain cells; the memory of how to get from here to the end of the block comes from another; the memory of biking safety rules from another; and that nervous feeling you get when a car veers dangerously close, from still another. Yet you’re never aware of these separate mental experiences, nor that they’re coming from all different parts of your brain, because they all work together so well. In fact, experts tell us there is no firm distinction between how you remember and how you think.

            The fallibility of human memory has been amply demonstrated by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. Memory does not work like a videotape recorder. You don’t just record the event and play it back later the way a videotape player would work. We are probably aware of the obvious difficulties of not having a clear view of the situation and the stress. There can be, however, more subtle factors at work such as the way the eyewitness is questioned after the incident; new memories can be implanted and old ones unconsciously altered. Here is an example of how the wording of a question can lead the witness:

How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?’

How fast were the cars going when they collided into each other?’

How fast were the cars going when they bumped into each other?’

How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?

How fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?’

The questions provided very different estimates from the witnesses of the speeds of the drivers:

Smashed 40.8 (mph)

Collided 39.3

Bumped 38.1

Hit 34.0

Contacted 31.8

            But there are also prodigious feats of memory too. We have Dave Farrow who is in The Guinness Book of World Records for memorising the order of 52 decks of cards shuffled together randomly – that is, 2,704 cards! I can’t even remember my mobile phone number! What interests me are the techniques people with this kind of memory use. That marvellous illusionist Derren Brown was able to train Glen Brighton, 40-year-old aviation insurance consultant, to beat the most prestigious teams in the Night of Champions quiz night at a pub in Fulham – on his own. Brighton was able to absorb the contents of hundreds of encyclopaedias and reference books. He used a technique called photoreading  that allows you to mentally photograph a page in a few seconds. Then he created powerful visual images in his head, which enabled him to recall the words with great ease. Dave Farrow gave this example of how to remember that an anti-neutrino is a subatomic particle; he pictures an ant with a newt on its back driving an atomic submarine.

I have Brown’s book Tricks of the Mind and I am taking part in an IH trivia quiz this Friday; I reckon in a week I should be able to get it sussed. In fact, I really won’t be needing a team. It should be a piece of cake. If I could just remember where I left the book…


One Response to Memories are made of this.

  1. […] Molaison (known as HM), the most famous patient of 20th century neuroscience. I talked about him in a post I did about memory. After surgery to cure epilepsy, he became a man who lived in the perpetual present. The Remarkable […]

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