“Do you know what home is?”
“Yesterday”, answers Clive Wearing to his wife when she asks.
She is the only person he remembered after contracting an illness that attacked his central nervous system and damaged his hippocampus, making impossible to convert short-term memories into long-term ones. Clive used to be a musicologist and conductor but because of this condition can recall nothing that happened over thirty seconds ago. He suffers from anterograde and retrograde amnesia.
Home is yesterday because home is the known, the familiar, the intimate, but without memory, none of these are possible. Without memory, there are no dreams, no hopes, no ambitions. Memory makes us human and memory makes us who we are. Without memory there is no “I” to speak of.
We tend to think of our memories as a storage room that we access when we need to retrieve something, something like the kitchen pantry. But our memories are so much more than that. It is what enables us to speak, to think, to read even – for example, you are using your memory to decipher these symbols in order to make sense of what you are reading. Our memory is also at work when we eat, walk or drive. In short, without memory we would be as good as dead. This is what Clive says:
“Day and night are the same. No difference. No dreams or thoughts of any kind. The same as being dead. Which is not difficult, is it? Being dead is easy. You don’t have to do anything”.
Scientists and psychologists divide memory for its study. The short-term memory is where you save the information that you need from the surrounding stimulus to process it and respond. The long-term memory saves the information from your short-term memory for later retrieval. But both are at play when we do any conscious or unconscious action. Additionally there is the explicit long-term memory and implicit/procedural long-term memory. Implicit memory is that which comes to you without you having to consciously recall it, for example, driving. Explicit memory is what you consciously work to remember – for example when asked a question like ‘What is the capital of France?’
Explicit memory is, in turn, further divided into semantical which is your general knowledge or facts such as the day you were born or the capital of a country, and episodic which refers to experiences, for example, of having been born or that you visited Paris, which is the capital of France. Although all these divisions are more formal than factual, they are important to understand how memory works.
The part of Clive’s memory that was damaged is the episodic memory. But he could recall certain facts previous to his illness like a phone number. His implicit/procedural memory also worked as Clive could still play the piano and read sheet music, although he could not learn a new word or melody. Episodic memory is where our experiences are stored, those experiences that we remember and those that we don’t. Clive could not remember who he was because he could not access these memories.
When he is asked if he misses his previous life Clive answers: “Yes, but I’ve never been conscious to think about it. Never been bored or upset”. Because Clive cannot recall at will the experiences of his previous life, he cannot really miss it. He says that he misses the fact that he was a musician, but he cannot remember what being a musician was like. He feels no joy or sadness, for that, too, we need our memories.
Our memories help us not only to interpret the world and function in it but also define our character and identity. We learn through stimulus and experiences, and, on the back of these, we build the idea of ourselves. Without memory to hold these experiences and symbols we would have no idea of who we are; we would have to constantly figure out everything at every moment. Just like Clive has to do every thirty seconds.
When we think and speak of ourselves, we are mainly basing it on our episodic memory: the experiences that have shaped us to be as we are. Our memory is also what allows to interpret the world around us. I know that four sticks with a board on top is a table, and not a stool for example, because I have used something similar before for that particular thing which tables are used for. I know that someone is approaching me and speaking to me in a friendly manner because I have learnt that certain words, expressions and movements carry that intention. I interpret a particular event to understand its meaning based on previous knowledge and experience. In all these cases, I use my memory.
But our memories are not static, neither are they an exact copy of reality. Our memories are reconstructive, every time we access a memory we are recreating it and changing it. When we ‘store’ a new memory of an event, fact, feeling or experience we have already gone through a process of interpreting it based on the stimuli and our interpretation of that stimuli. There have been several experiments of how it is possible to implant a memory in a person or how a memory changes every time we recall it.
So why do we hold a solid and defined conception of ourselves when the idea of ourselves is based on memories, which are reconstructive, changing and open to interpretation? The character of Fred Madison in David’s Lynch’s film Lost Highway offered an explanation to why this is when he said, “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them, not necessarily the way they happened”.
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