Monday, May 22, 2017

We Are Made of Memories

Note: I've mentioned here the teetering pile of unfinished quilting projects. Turns out that's not all. There's quite a supply of half done blog posts piled up also that, for one reason or another never made it to "publish." So since inspiration is (temporarily I hope) in short supply here's one of them.


Me, a friend and the Little Blister in the fifties by the seaside.

Imagine if you woke up tomorrow and didn't know where you were? Looking around from amid the crumpled sheets you didn't recognise the room or the furniture or the pictures on the walls? Even though you've been sleeping in this room for more than a decade?

I recently finished a fascinating book - "Patient H.M". It's a story about the history of lobotomies. Not the kind of book I'd normally pick up but the OC read it and pushed it my way so I read a little bit, and then a little bit more, and soon I couldn't put it down. The author, Luke Ditterich, is the grandson of the doctor who performed thousands of lobotomies back in the first half of the twentieth century, even though a form of the procedure was in use as far back as ancient Egypt. In many instances lobotomies were considered a successful treatment in that they made patients in mental asylums more tractable - remember One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest?

Thankfully, we don't poke around with metal objects in people's brains to make them more manageable anymore, even though the doctor in question continued to perform them into the fifties, sixties and early seventies. He was a pioneer in studying the human brain but, in the opinion of some of his contemporaries, a little too eager to take advantage of the ready and captive supply of human guinea pigs in the mental hospitals where he worked, whereas another of his fellow doctors/researchers cautiously confined his efforts to chimpanzees.

As a result of a lobotomy performed on him as a young man by this Dr. Scoville, a patient named Henry became the most studied case in the history of psychosurgery. After the surgery he could remember partsof his life before it, but could no longer form memories so that, when tomorrow came, today was not just a distant memory but a non-existant one.  If you met him today, and spoke with him, he would be friendly and chatty but, if you met him again tomorrow, while he would still be friendly and chatty, he would have no memory of having met you or spoken to you and would act as though he was meeting you for the first time. And that's how it went for the rest of his life. Because he and his brain were so exhaustively studied, Henry, without ever planning to, or benefitting from it, made huge contributions to our knowledge of how the brain works.

Who we are today is defined by all the people, places, things, experiences, friends, thoughts, books and conversations we've known, met, been to, done, gone through, had, read....and on and on. If this whole messy blackboard of our lives were suddenly wiped clean who would we be? What reason would we have for climbing out from among those rumpled sheets each morning to face a new day, in a strange place, among people we did not recognise?

The author, Luke Ditterich, had a vague idea, growing up, of what his grandfather did but it took him a decade of research, and persistant digging into the past, to uncover the whole story. The book is as much about his personal family history as it is about his grandfather's most famous patient. And that history is itself fascinating. Ditterich is a journalist first and foremost and his writing flows smoothly back and forth between the past and his efforts in the present to uncover it. We are reminded again how human even the most dedicated scientists are and what a struggle it sometimes is for them to remember that the patient is a human being, not a lab rat. Having power over others' lives tempts some to play God. Look around you in today's world....

When I finally closed the book I had a fuller appreciation than ever before for what a gift it is to be able to remember. To look at a photograph like the one above and be instantly back there, on the strand at Ballybunion, feeling the sand between my toes, the salty sea air blowing through my hair, building sand castles with my friend and my little sister, seeing again the jellyfish that sent us, just moments before the picture was taken, shrieking and laughing out of the waves.

As long as we have a functioning memory we can call to mind people we have known and loved, and maybe lost - but not entirely as we can still see them in our mind's eye; happy times and sad; remembered conversations, places and events that formed us.

 I hear and read all the time that we should "live in the moment," and I agree, but how much richer that moment is when we can remember all the layers of memory that brought to it.

That said, the old grey mare 'aint what she used to be! An excuse I find myself using more and more frequently is "the memory is the first thing to go!" But at least it's going gradually and not because anyone with a God complex has punched holes in my brain.

A fascinating read.

15 comments:

SmitoniusAndSonata said...

Instant Alzheimers . Actually that might be preferable to the conventional kind , since you wouldn't have to watch yourself fading away .
I'd love to be sitting on that beach eating a jam sandwich now .

Elephant's Child said...

It sounds a truly fascinating book to read. Scary and heartbreaking too.
I was appalled to learn relatively recently that electroshock therapy is still used here in some cases.
A woman I spoke to on the crisis line had it. When she came out of the treatment she had no memory that she was divorced and that her only son was dead, and had to relearn and re-experience the tragedies. She wept, and I wept with her.

Ali Honey said...

Having photos really helps with us retaining those memories.
I might hunt down that book.

Sabine said...

Just after reading your post, the next post in my blog feed brought me this:

"The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older. Childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we're dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.

Time is this rubbery thing. It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, 'Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,' it shrinks up."

(David Eagleman who according to wikiĆ¼edia is a mere 46 yrs old)

found on http://whiskeyriver.blogspot.com

And yes, the Kerry coast on a sunny day . . .

Pam said...

You and the little Blister have a distinct family resemblance! What happened to the friend? Is she still a friend?

dianne said...

i had something important to say ... but now i've forgotten what it was.

Molly Bon said...


S&S --- I think it would be better to move to the sand-free rocks for the sandwich....
sand and jam? Not such a good combination. Meanwhile the "A" word is what makes me nervous....

EC --- The mind boggles....

Ali --- They'd be what I'd hope to grab if the house was on fire!

Sabine --- that's as good an explanation of how time flies so much faster when we're older as any I've heard, Also a new blog to follow! And the Kerry coast? At least on a summer's day? A wondrous thing...

Pam --- More so now than ever since she's finally allowed her hair to be it's natural colour (same as mine!)The friend and her family moved to Dublin. We stayed in touch a few years, I went to visit, but then we drifted apart and lost touch. I heard that she became a nurse, moved to England and married a policeman.I've "immortalised" her (after a fashion) in a couple of stories.

Dianne --- Comedy central is calling your name!

gz said...

memories,good and bad, are valuable. To have them disrupted, even removed...unimaginably cruel

Secret Agent Woman said...

I am definitely going to read that. Incidentally, lobotomies and cingulotomies are still sometimes performed. It's rare, but it does happen.

Thimbleanna said...

Wow Molly -- it sounds like a great book! I've always been fascinated by what they thought they were accomplishing with labotomies. I didn't realize they affected the memory -- I thought it was more of a personality alteration. Although, certainly the loss of your memories would alter your personality.

Molly Bon said...


GZ --- They say as we get older we recall the way back past better than what happened a few days ago.I know that's true for me and I'd hate to have it taken away...

SAW --- Since you work in the mental; health field I'd be iinterested to hear what you think of it.

Anna-Banana --- In the book it all sounded pretty experimental -- go in, poke around, see what happens. Talk about playing God!

Colette said...

I always heard that as you got older your memories would become more vivid. This seems to be true. I'm happy about that, there are a few fleeing moments when a memory is so vivid it is almost like time travel. The book sounds fascinating. How odd it would be to not be able to form any new memories.

Molly Bon said...


Colette --- The older I get the more I remember about long ago and the less I remember about what I did last week!

Dee said...

Dear Molly, this is a fascinating posting, one that hits home because two acquaintances of mine--both in their thirties--were in an automobile accident last week and it seems that their brains have been adversely affected. Memory gone. I hope this amnesia will go away, but as I read your posting I realized that they could have lost all their memories. Peace.

Molly Bon said...


Dee --- I hope your friends recover fully. It is weird, and it's happened to me too, to read something at just the time you have reason to relate to it.