A map to the treasure house

Memory is the treasure house of the mind. ~ Thomas Fuller

I once watched a movie, only to get the sneaking feeling, quite near the end, that I had seen it before. No matter—I couldn’t remember the ending, so it wasn’t spoiled for me.

The movie was Identity, and it all takes place in the darkest and deepest recesses of one man’s mind. I see the coincidence only in retrospect, because I have a horror of losing things, and the thing I’m most terrified to lose is my mind. Now, I think the nightmare is coming true. Ask me what I did last weekend, or what my postal code is, and you might just get a blank stare in response. At home, I put something away and then spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to find it a week later. I go to the grocery store for one specific thing, and emerge an hour later with two bulging bags, neither of which contain the thing I came for in the first place. In conversations, suddenly my mind will come to a grinding halt and refuse to yield the proper term for what we’ve been discussing. This handicap gets pretty embarrassing at parties, when I’ve just been introduced to someone but can’t remember his or her name a few minutes later.

National Post columnist Jane MacDougall writes, “I used to have a titanium memory. … It now appears that this faculty has rusted up or even vanished. What has happened? Is my memory now a sieve?” So I know I’m not alone in this. In fact, I know that memory lapses like these are quite normal for most people. But knowing that my problem is not unique does not make it any less inconvenient or frustrating.

Neither does it help that I’m turning 40 soon: the point of life which, in my imagination, resembles the peak of a mountain, where you can stand for a moment, marvel at how far you’ve come, enjoy the view, then go downhill the rest of the way—the key word being “downhill.”  In a book called In the Palaces of Memory, author George Johnson talks about “graceful degradation”—the brain’s gradual deterioration over time. For a technical term, it’s a pretty turn of phrase. It makes me think of a white-haired granny on a vine-covered porch, peacefully rocking her way into oblivion.

But since I’m nowhere near ready for granny-hood or oblivion, there’ll be no peaceful rocking for me. I’m determined not to give up my memory without a fight. And since knowledge is power, I think the first thing to do is to figure out just how memory works. If I could do that, then maybe I will also learn what makes it not work—and how, if possible, to halt or even reverse the process.


The workings of the human mind have fascinated scientists for centuries. Archaeological evidence reveals that trepanation (drilling a hole into the skull to expose the brain) was performed as early as 10,000 BC. Hippocrates speculated that the two halves of the brain could function independently, a phenomenon he called “dual processing.” Leonardo da Vinci dissected and drew the anatomy of the brain, in search of “the seat of the soul.”

Today, there is still a lot to learn about the brain, so much so that Allan Jones, CEO of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, describes it as “an unexplored, undiscovered continent…the new frontier.”

Think about it for a minute. The brain contains 86 billion neurons. Each neuron is connected to up to 10,000 other neurons via chemical and electrical connections called synapses. From what I’ve been able to understand with my decidedly non-scientific brain, these neural connections are what enable us to store information in our brains, and to form memories. A short-term memory is first formed and stored in the hippocampus. If the biochemical changes that occur result in a strong enough connection, the short-term memory lives on to become a long-term memory, and goes off to live in another part of the cerebral cortex.

I was also surprised to learn that there are different types of memory. (Or maybe I already learned it in biology class—I simply can’t remember.) There’s episodic memory, which records past events. It’s like a feckless boyfriend: sweet and fun to be with, but tricksy and unreliable. There’s also semantic memory, which holds everything we know about the world: facts, meanings, concepts. Nerdy, but useful, and to a large extent, dependable.

Our different kinds of memories are intertwined, but because they operate in different parts of the brain, one can fail while the other keeps on trucking. This was demonstrated in the case of Henry Gustav Molaison (a.k.a. HM), who in 1953 underwent an operation to quiet his epileptic seizures. Both his hippocampi were removed, and with them went his memories of everything prior to his operation, as well as his ability to make short-term memories. In one subsequent test, he showed he could remember how to draw a star, even if he couldn’t remember the day-to-day process he went through to learn how to do it.


So far, I’m fascinated with everything I’m learning about the brain—but questions remain. How do I strengthen my synapses so that my short-term memories can have a shot at longer life expectancy? Should I start taking gingko biloba or ginseng? Or should I stop eating sushi? One friend tells me that memory loss is caused by the presence of toxic metals in our bodies. He recently had all his dental fillings removed, and claims he’s never felt more mentally alert. Particularly menacing is methyl mercury, which tends to accumulate in all fish, but especially in predatory ones. It’s absorbed through the digestive tract and slips into the brain, where it makes itself at home.

“Effects of methyl mercury on infants and children,” counsels one website, “can include a decrease in I.Q., delays in walking and talking, lack of coordination, blindness and seizures. In adults, extreme exposure can lead to health effects such as personality changes, tremors, changes in vision, deafness, loss of muscle coordination and sensation, memory loss, intellectual impairment, and even death.”

Yikes. It’s enough to make me consider drastically reducing my intake of my favourite toro belly.


Even without the help of mercury, memories apparently can be erased, shaped and changed with the simple power of suggestion.

In his book Quirkology, psychologist Richard Wiseman describes the experiments of Elizabeth Loftus and Kimberley Wade, who used altered photographs to trick people into changing the memories they had, or to make up entirely new memories of things that never happened to them.

“The work shows that our memories are far more malleable than we would like to believe,” Wiseman writes. “Once an authority figure suggests that we have experienced an event, most of find it difficult to deny it and we start to fill in the gaps from our imagination.”

“Memory is a construct, not a videotape,” agrees George Johnson. “Presented with the same event, different brains will pick different features to put in their memory structures, and they will build them in different ways. It depends, in part, on what is already in storage. Over the years, memories will get pushed together, the arrangements will shift and change.”

The malleability of memory is even celebrated in poetry and prose. “Memories may be beautiful and yet / What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget,” goes the Barbra Streisand classic. And in his essay, “Looking at Emmett Till,” John Edgar Wideman writes, “We depend on memory’s capacity to hold many lives, not just the one we appear to be living at the moment.  Memory is space for storing lives we didn’t lead, room where they remain alive, room for mourning them, forgiving them.”


Grappling with her own memory challenges, Jane MacDougall discovered Hermann Ebbinghaus, a 19th-century German psychologist whose wisdom stands to this day. “According to Ebbinghaus, the trick to retention is something called over-learning. Over-learning is simple: keep doing something until you can do it perfectly again and again. And again. This, or a huge emotional charge, is the only way a memory gets delivered to deep storage.”

So there you have it. Doing something over and over again until you perfect it—that sounds a lot like learning, a lot like working, a lot like living. And huge emotional charges? I’ve had a lot of those in my time, and I hope there’s a lot of them still left in store.

In the meantime, I guess I shouldn’t get too worried, because my long-term memory is just fine. It’s like a locked safe—a treasure house—for everything that is precious and important: beloved faces, past laughter, my nephew’s darling baby toes.

And who cares if I can’t rattle off my postal code on demand? I’ll have you know I still remember the license plate of the guy I had a secret crush on in high school, and I use it now as a password that no one will ever be able to crack. I still know all the lyrics to a hundred songs, and the words to all my childhood prayers.

Even the idea of one day losing my mind has become a little less frightening. The other Sunday in church, my parish priest told a story about a woman with Alzheimer’s who was a regular attendee of the Masses he said at the nursing home where she was a resident. Most of the time she seemed lost and locked away in her own world, but always at the moment of Consecration, she came alive, and recited the words along with him.

“They were words of remembrance, of healing, love, and lucid grace,” he recalled.

I figure we can all work at storing away words like that—words that have the power to bring back our memories and ourselves out of the dark.

Postscript: 17 September 2013

I just came across this ‘op-doc’ in The New York Times: 56 ways of saying ‘I don’t remember.’  It contains a short video of a man with Alzheimer’s, which sounds frightening, but is in fact quite beautiful. In the words of the author, “It is the chronicle of a man who, though he may have lost his memory, his relationship to the past and his command of language, still retained his wit, his sense of humor, his scholarly demeanor and the bearings of a deeply poetic soul.”


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