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Mon Dec 31, 2012, 02:40 PM

Amnesia and the Self That Remains When Memory Is Lost

Daniel Levitin - Daniel Levitin is a neuroscientist and author of This Is Your Brain on Music and The World in Six Songs. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. His forthcoming book is The Organized Mind.


Tom was one of those people we all have in our lives -- someone to go out to lunch with in a large group, but not someone I ever spent time with one-on-one. We had some classes together in college and even worked in the same cognitive psychology lab for a while. But I didn't really know him. Even so, when I heard that he had brain cancer that would kill him in four months, it stopped me cold. I was 19 when I first saw him -- in a class taught by a famous neuropsychologist, Karl Pribram. I'd see Tom at the coffee house, the library, and around campus. He seemed perennially enthusiastic, and had an exaggerated way of moving that made him seem unusually focused. I found it uncomfortable to make eye contact with him, not because he seemed threatening, but because his gaze was so intense.

Once Tom and I were sitting next to each other when Pribram told the class about a colleague of his who had just died a few days earlier. Pribram paused to look out over the classroom and told us that his colleague had been one of the greatest neuropsychologists of all time. Pribram then lowered his head and stared at the floor for such a long time I thought he might have discovered something there. Without lifting his head, he told us that his colleague had been a close friend, and had telephoned a month earlier to say he had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor growing in his temporal lobe. The doctors said that he would gradually lose his memory -- not his ability to form new memories, but his ability to retrieve old ones ... in short, to understand who he was.

Tom's hand shot up. To my amazement, he suggested that Pribram was overstating the connection between temporal-lobe memory and overall identity. Temporal lobe or not, you still like the same things, Tom argued -- your sensory systems aren't affected. If you're patient and kind, or a jerk, he said, such personality traits aren't governed by the temporal lobes.

Pribram was unruffled. Many of us don't realize the connection between memory and self, he explained. Who you are is the sum total of all that you've experienced. Where you went to school, who your friends were, all the things you've done or -- just as importantly -- all the things you've always hoped to do. Whether you prefer chocolate ice cream or vanilla, action movies or comedies, is part of the story, but the ability to know those preferences through accumulated memory is what defines you as a person. This seemed right to me. I'm not just someone who likes chocolate ice cream, I'm someone who knows, who remembers that I like chocolate ice cream. And I remember my favorite places to eat it, and the people I've eaten it with.

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/12/amnesia-and-the-self-that-remains-when-memory-is-lost/266662/

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Reply Amnesia and the Self That Remains When Memory Is Lost (Original post)
undeterred Dec 2012 OP
Jackpine Radical Dec 2012 #1
undeterred Dec 2012 #2
Igel Dec 2012 #6
undeterred Dec 2012 #7
GeorgeGist Dec 2012 #3
undeterred Dec 2012 #4
Rozlee Dec 2012 #5
undeterred Dec 2012 #8
XemaSab Jan 2013 #9
undeterred Jan 2013 #10

Response to undeterred (Original post)

Mon Dec 31, 2012, 02:46 PM

1. Pribram is in his early 90's now.

A great genius, the originator of the holograph metaphor for brain function.

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Response to Jackpine Radical (Reply #1)

Mon Dec 31, 2012, 02:56 PM

2. This article really highlights the sadness of Alzheimers.

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Response to undeterred (Reply #2)

Mon Dec 31, 2012, 08:44 PM

6. Alzheimer's is a different kettle of fish.

Your memories slowly erode, and can come back for a while.

But it also screws over inhibitions, language, motor skills. Incrementally.

Makes it sadder. Esp. when they're anosognosic, like my mother.

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Response to Igel (Reply #6)

Mon Dec 31, 2012, 09:11 PM

7. Sadder because you are aware that you are losing it?

Whereas with amnesia there is frustration, minus the sense of loss.

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Response to undeterred (Original post)

Mon Dec 31, 2012, 03:31 PM

3. Empty frames?

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Response to GeorgeGist (Reply #3)

Mon Dec 31, 2012, 05:15 PM

4. A metaphor for whats left when the person has no memories of their own life, no history.

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Response to undeterred (Original post)

Mon Dec 31, 2012, 05:20 PM

5. I can't imagine the horror of losing a large portion of your life's memories.

I'm obsessed with an entire day that I lost after having a severe clonic tonic seizure once. Poor Tom. Stories like his make me realize that in matters of degree, I've got nothing to complain about.

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Response to Rozlee (Reply #5)

Mon Dec 31, 2012, 09:28 PM

8. I worked in a nursing home while I was in college

and I remember this one old woman about 95. Something about me in my nurses aide uniform triggered her memories of when she was in nursing school 75 years earlier. So whenever I saw her she would talk about nursing school and her boyfriend and what she was studying in school. I don't think she had alzheimers or organic brain disease of any kind.

But if I changed the subject and asked her if she had any children or grandchildren she couldn't tell me. I don't know if she had forgotten later parts of her life completely or if she just remembered her twenty year old life so strongly around me that she couldn't switch out of it. It was interesting but still kind of sad.

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Response to Rozlee (Reply #5)

Tue Jan 1, 2013, 12:07 AM

9. I was in an accident back in July involving a motorcyclist

Immediately after the accident he had amnesia.

He could tell you what he did for a living and where he was going and where he was coming from, but he couldn't remember anything from a few minutes earlier.

It was really scary.

A couple weeks ago I called him and talked to him about it, because if that was me and I had a chunk of missing time, I would be very upset about it, but I filled him in about what happened so he wouldn't have that sense of a total blank space there.

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Response to XemaSab (Reply #9)

Tue Jan 1, 2013, 09:22 AM

10. That was good of you.

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