Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Mystery of Memory

To every disease there is a season. After World War II, cancer terrified us most. After all, antibiotics, developed during the war, had solved contagious disease.

By the mid-1980s, we knew that was not true, of course. AIDS had replaced cancer as the medical condition most dreaded. Today, we’ve solved that one too, or so we tell ourselves. What’s left to fear? Arguably, and profoundly, we fear the loss of our selves, the failure of memory. Don’t we fear dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, more than any other condition?

On its surface, Moonwalking with Einstein is a prodigy of participatory journalism. Young writer Joshua Foer, armed with a $1.2 million advance at the tender age of 22, set out to enter the U.S. Memory Championships, a test of one’s ability to memorize such things as playing cards, names and faces, and long strings of binary numbers (0100111001010001 . . . ). Then he won the championship. His book, released earlier this year, is a sort of “Rocky” for mental athletes—the story of mind sport’s ultimate underdog overcoming all obstacles to win the crown.

Just below the surface, though, Moonwalking with Einstein is a meditation on memory and identity. It raises, then largely dodges profound questions.

Foer intercuts his odyssey toward the memory competition with chapters on the history of memory and its study. Nearly 100 years ago, the scholar Milman Parry showed that Homer’s works must have been transmitted orally for generations before being written down. Writing developed in the middle of the first millennium BC, and with it came the externalization of memory that has progressed through papyri, books, museums, and videotapes to the random-access memory (RAM) of today. A trained memory was once thought to be the foundation of erudition, the cornerstone of the cardinal virtue of prudence. Today, we outsource memory. Is it significant that Americans have never done well in the World Memory Championships? Today, mental workouts are becoming big business. Memory training systems and software are a growth industry—“mostly because of the baby-boomer generation’s intense insecurity about losing their marbles.”

It is no coincidence that the memory technique known as the Memory Palace or the ars memorativa—still used by memory competitors today—was developed by Greek poet Simonides in the 5th century BC. Just when humans were starting to move their memories outside their brains and onto papyrus, they began developing this technique. Greek and Roman orators used it to remember speeches. It involves visualizing a temple, palace, cathedral, or house in one’s mind and then installing vivid images in each chapel, niche, or corner, images associated with the contents of the speech. Memory techniques have been studied and developed since the days of Simonides, by a pantheon of scholars including Augustine (who was “steeped in the Psalms”) and Aquinas.

In the first half of Moonwalking, Foer discusses how human remembering and our thinking about it has evolved over the three thousand years since Homer and his bardic brothers. He introduces us to fascinating examples of memory and forgetting. These include the synesthete S., who seemingly could not forget anything, described in A. R. Luria’s landmark study The Mind of a Mnemonist, and the real-life autistic savant on whom Dustin Hoffman’s “Rain Man” character was based. And how could one forget the chapter on “chicken sexing,” the arcane art of determining a newborn chick’s sex at a glance?

In the second half of the book we follow Foer as he meets and trains with world memory experts, then enters and wins the U.S. championship. Did he improve his memory? By objective measure, yes: he could recall more lines of poetry, more people’s names. But a few nights after the memory championships he went out to dinner, returned home by public transportation, and only then remembered that he had driven his car to dinner.  That, he notes, was the paradox: for all the memory stunts he had learned to perform, like a trained ape, he was still stuck with “shoddy” memory. Most of the things he wanted to remember in everyday life were not random digits or playing cards. Setting aside the technique of the Memory Palace, his memory was largely unchanged.

“Yet clearly I had changed,” Foer writes. He had learned something “global.” His experience had validated “the old saw that practice makes perfect,” but only deliberate practice. The mind can be trained to do extraordinary things. This, Foer says, was “empowering.” This conclusion, I say, is disappointing. As is Foer’s final tribute to mindfulness. He observes, as if he were the first to realize this, that we can’t remember what we don’t notice.

But what is memory? Is it only a function of technique, of personal training, or is memory somehow twined with human identity? Does an Alzheimer’s patient have a self, a soul, an “I”? If my father becomes demented, is he still here? What does our modern obsession with—and failure of—memory say about our condition today? And what about the different kinds of memory: the memory for facts and strings of digits, the memory that one took one’s car, the memory of one’s values in the heat of action, the memory of oneself, of God. . . .

These are just a few of the questions that Moonwalking with Einstein suggests then fails to address. But then what can you expect for $1.2 million dollars?

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you have trouble posting comments, please log in as Anonymous and sign your comment manually.