I have memories of being born.
I’m in a sterile room with a doctor and a handful of nurses moving about in no particular hurry. There’s a person lying quietly on a table nearby, who seems to be a minor player in the scene. I’m crying. Screaming, really. One of the nurses is holding me, bundling me in a white flannel blanket with thin stripes. Other than the stripes, the room is all muted tones. There might be some hospital greens, but since this was the 60s, and color television was not yet a thing, I see only halftones, an array of grays and whites.
It’s not really possible, of course, that I remember this. What I see in my mind’s eye is a scene that has subtly changed over the years, morphed from an inky pool of nothingness in my mind to a combination of snippets and facts I was told about my birth (from that minor player who was intimate witness to it all) to stories I’ve been told of other births and stories I’ve read or watched in movies or on television to witnessing the birth of my own children.
The memory of my birth is a memory both created and altered over time.
So it goes with our memories.
In this week’s Pod Club, we listened to the 2007 Radiolab podcast Memory and Forgetting, which featured a series of interviews with scientists, an artist, and researcher Oliver Sacks, who told the story of Clive Wearing, the conductor who suffered devastating memory loss due to a brain infection.
While my birth memory is fabricated organically, we learn in the podcast that scientists have long been experimenting with creating and altering memories. A famous experiment involved creating a memory in lab rats by playing a tone followed by a shock to the foot. The rat would then associate that tone with the pain of the shock, and react accordingly when they heard the tone. To test the hypothesis that memory could be altered, the scientists injected a chemical into the rats at the moment the memory was being formed.
Scientists discovered in the course of their research that a memory is not a mere idea or thought, but it is a physical thing. A memory is actually a protein and the process of creating memories is one in which a structure is created, like a bridge, to connect one brain cell to another. The chemical disrupted that process, and the rats did not associate the tone and the shock ever after. The process of memory creation did not take hold.
To take the experiment a step further, scientists later attempted to alter a memory that already existed by injecting the chemical into a patient at the moment not of formation of the memory, but at the moment of remembering. They discovered the memory could be altered: lessened, or in some cases, erased, a discovery that was seen as potentially powerful in treatment of trauma.
Additionally, the work of another researcher led to the discovery that memories could be created in a person’s brain such that they would consider them their own. The researcher, Elizabeth Loftus, worked with a test group to introduce false memories into the brain, not by use of a chemical but by providing the pieces: details about locations, family members, etc. In the process, she was able to coach subjects into believing they had seen something that they had not. Consider, for example, the idea that I remember my own birth, a memory artificially constructed from bits and pieces picked up along the way. Loftus’s research called into question some of the popular thought at the time about repressed memories, and whether they were in fact valid, or if they could have been planted, intentionally or not.
Additional pieces of the podcast included an interview with artist Joe Andoe, who, over a period of years and many, many paintings of pastures and horses and nudes that he could not explain, came to the recollection of parking alongside a pasture on Route 66 near Tulsa, Oklahoma, with his high school girlfriend. He recalls being 17, in love, skipping school with five bucks in his pocket and a beautiful naked girl in his back seat when a horse emerged from the tall grass and looked in the car window. Years later, the memory clandestinely worked its way out of his brain and onto his canvases.
Finally, the podcast concludes with an interview with Oliver Sacks and compelling audio from a documentary made involving conductor Clive Wearing, who suffered profound short term memory injury due to a brain infection. His wife at one time noted that “every moment is his first waking moment.” Wearing relived numerous times each day the moment of emerging from a coma, unable to recall having experienced that same moment just hours or minutes before. Sacks noted that while he had lost the immediate memories (indeed, he would leave voice messages, one after another, for his wife—who had just left his room—saying he missed her so, and plead with her to pay him a visit) he retained the “primordial” memories, the deepest pain and joy, in a sort of “sub-cortical safe vault.” His wife in one instance began to sing. Wearing joined her in song, as though nothing had changed. She arranged for his choir to come to the hospital, where he began to direct them as he always had. Afterward, he found the idea of conducting a choir laughable, and was stunned to see himself in a videotape of the event, utterly unable to reach for that memory of just moments before. Music, as Sacks noted, became a path to himself, if only briefly.
What we understand now is that memory is not merely malleable, but it is a new creation each time we remember, subject to minute changes with each recollection or retelling. Some of these changes we can manage and control. Some of them we cannot. The implications, in any case, boggle the mind.
Listen to Memory and Forgetting at Radiolab and join us in the comments with your thoughts.