Amnesia and the Self That Remains When Memory Is Lost

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The tumor Tom’s memory is erased not touched his “soul”.

Tom was one of those people we all have in our lives – someone to go to lunch with a large group, but not someone who ever spent time one-on-one. We had some classes together in college and even worked in the same laboratory of cognitive psychology for a while. But I really do not know. . Still, when I heard he had a brain cancer that would kill him in four months, he stopped cold

was 19 when I saw it – in a class taught by a famous neuropsychologist Karl Pribram. I’d see Tom in the cafeteria, library, and the campus. It seemed perennially enthusiastic, and had an exaggerated form of movement that made him look unusually focused. I found it uncomfortable to make eye contact with him, not because he looked threatening, but because his gaze was so intense.

Once Tom and I we were sitting next to each other when Pribram told the class about a colleague who had just died a few days earlier. Pribram paused to contemplate the classroom and told us that his colleague had been one of the greatest of all times neuropsychologists. Pribram then lowered his head and stared at the floor for a long time I thought I might have found something there. Without lifting his head, he told us that his colleague had been a close friend, and telephoned the previous month to say he had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor growing in his temporal lobe. Doctors said it would gradually lose their memory -. It is their ability to form new memories, but their ability to recover old … in short, to understand who he was

Tom’s hand shot up. To my amazement, Pribram suggested that the connection between memory and temporal lobe global identity is exaggerated. temporal lobe or not, they still like the same things, Tom argued – their sensory systems are not affected. If you are patient and kind, or a pull, he said, such personality traits are not governed by the temporal lobes.

Pribram was imperturbable. Many of us will not realize the connection between memory and I explained. What you are is the sum total of everything that you have experienced. Where he went to school, who were his friends, all the things you’ve done and – not least – all the things you’ve always hoped to do. If the ice cream chocolate or vanilla is preferred, action films or comedies, is part of the story, but the ability to know these preferences through the accumulated memory is what is defined as a person. This seemed fine 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, and people I have eaten.

Pribram approached the lectern and grabbed with both hands. When they had spoken last, his colleague seemed more sad than scared. He was worried about the loss of self rather than memory loss. Still they have their intelligence, doctors said, but can not remember. “What good is one without the other?” A colleague had asked. That was the last time you spoke to him Pribram.

From a friend, Pribram had learned that his colleague had decided to go to the Caribbean for a vacation with his wife. One day you just go into the ocean and never returned. He could not swim; he must have gone out with the intention of not returning – before the damage caused by the tumor could hold, Pribram


The room was silent for 10 or 15 seconds -. stone silent. I looked at Tom’s notebook. “Neuropsychologist contemplates losing his mind,” Tom had written.

Had he lived, Pribram colleague would have experienced what neuroscientists call retrograde amnesia. This is the kind of amnesia that is most often dredger as a plot element in bad comedies cheap and intrigue; so and so he is hit in the head and then can not remember who he is, wandering aimlessly, being in bizarre predicaments until you get hit in the head again and again his memory remarkably. This almost never happens in real life. Despite retrograde amnesia is real, it is usually the result of a tumor, stroke, brain trauma or other organic. It is not restored by a blow to the head. Because they can still form new memories, retrograde amnesia patients are very aware that they have a cognitive deficit, are painfully knowledgeable about what they are missing.


Tom and I passed years later, when the two were working for a research firm. He was part of a design team of virtual musical instruments for non-musicians like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, trying to give customers an experience impressive music playback after zero hours of practice. I saw Tom in the halls occasionally, I said hello, I saw a couple of jam sessions enterprise; he was a very good keyboard player.

Sometime after I left research company started my first academic job, I met a woman from the company that asked if he had heard the news about Tom.

“He has an inoperable brain tumor, temporal lobe. The doctors say he has four months to live. I just visited him. You might want to go and say hello.”

” Well, I … I really do not know. I mean, we said hi in the halls and stuff. But I do not know … I do not think we’ve had a conversation more than two minutes. “

“No matter,” he said. “It really has nothing to do besides visiting people. I think I really appreciate it.” She gave me the number for Tom, saying he should call first, because it has good and bad days.

called me and answered a caregiver. We made an appointment for next Thursday at 1:00 pm. “He’s not so good first thing in the morning. Medicines. And some days are not good at all. Call first, around 11:00 am, and I’ll let you know how it goes. Other than that, I must warn you, he does not remember much. – the tumor has erased memories of the past “

retrograde amnesia.

Thursday came, and I phoned. The caretaker replied back and said I could come to 1. I asked if he could bring anything. “You like Abba Zabba candy, but they are hard to find, so do not worry if you can not.”

knew Woolworth in the city – one of the last remnants – had a great counter sweets. So I grabbed a bag of peanut butter toffee Abba Zabba full.

Tom lived in a street full of identical apartments – the type of street you would have to count the number of apartment houses was his corner or end up in the wrong building. When I knocked on the door, the caretaker invited me in and asked me to take off my shoes. He then took me through a soft white to the living room carpet, I pointed to an old chair, and told me that Tom would be out in a minute. I put sweets on the coffee table.


When Tom came in, I stood. He came over and shook my hand, and he sang more than spoke, “thanks for coming.”

Those eyes – intense eyes, gripping locked on mine and was blocked as we shook hands, even as they both sat down. I broke my gaze to look over him – his hair was thinning, he had lost weight, but otherwise the same as what looked remembered. The same narrow face, the same innocent smile.

“I do not know if anyone has told you,” he began, still half singing and happy, “but I have a brain tumor that affects my memory.”

I nodded.

“Please forgive me for asking this, but I do it with everyone. Could I say his name and how you know?”

“Um … my name is Dan. Dan Levitin “.

there was neither recognition nor unrecognition. Only one, calm face looking back at me interested.

“We were students together at Stanford,” I continued. “We took a couple of psychology classes together.”

“Oh, yes, I have a degree in psychology.”

“We were in the class of Professor Pribram, and work together in a laboratory, the laboratory of Roger Shepard.”


“Roger Shepard. Her music and perception laboratory.”

“Wow. That sounds like it must have been interesting. What did I work there?”

“I do not know. I guess … I guess I was absorbed in my own work. The sorry “.

“That’s fine. Do I like being in the lab?”

“Yes, I think so. I mean, he never complained. He always seemed pretty focused.”

“That’s good. I would think that I was doing something I do not like.” I was sitting on the edge of the old sofa and I could see that the pillows gave way beneath him. “So we were students together. I think that was many years ago. Do we keep in touch after that?”

“Well, we finished work, a few years later, in the same company. A corporation research in Palo Alto. “

” had handled together? ”

“No, they were in different divisions. You worked with joy, and I worked with Bob. But we saw each other occasionally, and I was interested in what his group was doing. His team gave a very good presentation during the annual rodeo. I remember I had worked on a new very clever musical instrument called the “box of pearls.” people could move various grains around ears and pearls would play different musical licks. it was a form of non-musicians I was having fun with music, without having to engage in years of practice. “

” Huh? “he said, staring at the ceiling”, the “pearl box. “It does not sound. But do not get many bells ringing these days!”

“Well, it was very good.”

He looked at me. “Therefore, were we friends?”

I stared at me. Would it be rude if I said I never really thought of him as a friend? That is, if a person thinks of the other as a friend, and the other person denied, it would be painful. But Tom had no memory of me in one way or another. While thinking about this, he spoke.

“Okay. There is often this… Gray area, I guess it is said that, in human relations, is not there? We meet people, we see them every day, greet us, but not really know them. we say they are our friends, but in reality, we can not be friends with the hundreds of people who are, right? it’s enough that we had a shared history together. we were in the same place a while. we were part of the fabric of others. “He gestured rubbing with fingers and thumb.

The caretaker came with a small paper cup of water and some pills.

“Excuse me a minute,” Tom said. “I’m supposed to take these.”

I looked around the room. There were two or three pictures on the wall and in several places, hooks image with nothing in them, and discolored scheme that once had hung there, but they were now missing frames. On the wall to the left was a curio shelf with small objects – memories, and a collection of spoons of different US states arranged in alphabetical order. But some were missing. Where “Maryland” and “Illinois” had been there was now only an outline of dust, and did not seem to be any W at all – not Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. round, square, hexagonal and dust contours were all that remained on other shelves.

“Do you want anything?” He asked Tom.

“I, uh…”

“I will not be around three months. I say that people who visit can take what they want. Anything. Photos wall, musical instruments. Someone took a conga yesterday. Do you play drums? “

” No, but thanks. I could not… “

” seriously, it’s fine. I have a good collection of spoons 50 states. Please help yourself. “

” Thank you, Tom, but I do not feel right. Forgive me for asking, but do not worry that, with memory problems someone could come here and take advantage of you? “

” how? ”

“Well, I mean, they could come and lie, and just take your stuff.”

“That’s fine. They’re just things.”


phone. The caretaker took it to Tom. It was his mother. Listening to his end of the call, I understood that she was bedridden and was not right. This was his daily call. I got up to leave, but Tom motioned for me to stay. The caretaker took the phone when he was done.

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“It was good of you to come . it was also very useful. it is comforting to put the pieces of my life, to see what I’ve done. to know that there were good people like you that she was with me. Thank you. ”

walked down the stairs, past the rows and rows of identical apartment buildings, back to my car. Then I sat in my car with the key in the ignition, not wanting to move. Professor Pribram felt that when we lose our memory, we lose all our sense of self. When I saw Tom, something fundamentally Tom was still there. Some of us call it personality or essence. Some call it the “soul”. Whatever it is, the tumor that was Tom’s memory had not touched.

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