Struggling to Remember

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Biology 202
2002 First Paper
On Serendip

Struggling to Remember

Nawal Al-Khaleefa

The brain gathers, processes, and stores information in a number of ways. When we perceive something, a set of cells in our brain is activated in a specific sequence. If not fully pursued, the perception fades and the cells return to their original state (1). However if the thought or perception is ‘entertained,’ the cells interact, forming a network of communication and signal transmission. The set of cells becomes a memory engram; a neuronal network representing encoded fragments of past experiences. “The set of cells with facilitated synapses is now the anatomical correlate to the memory (1).” Recollection of an event or rather activation of an engram can occur via a stimulus to any of the parts of the brain where a neural connection for the memory exists. Once the engram is activated the hippocampus facilitates activity at the synapse, strengthening the relationship between neurons in the network, thus solidifying the memory (1). The chances of remembering improve by this process of consolidation. Thus, memories play an integral role in our lives; they are the bits and pieces of our experience.

Just as remembering plays a critical role in shaping or lives, so does the process of forgetting. What happens when we forget or lose our memories? Perhaps forgetting is due to poor encoding, an error in the process transforming something a person sees, hears, thinks, or feels into a memory (2). Maybe the absence of proper stimulus prohibits retrieval of information or maybe forgetting serves as a drive to keep us sane, purging the brain of irrelevant data. “If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill of ass if we remembered nothing (William James, The Principles of Psychology).”

Memory plays a central role in mental health and thus its impairment is one of the most distressing psychological dysfunctions. Amnesia or memory loss is an extreme case of forgetting that occurs often as a result of severe brain injury or traumatic experience. The term amnesia is associated with a broad category of memory deficits ranging from Alzheimer’s disease and anterograde and retrograde amnesia to infantile and childhood amnesia and progressive memory loss due to aging (3). However, clinical cases of amnesia tend to fall into two main categories-psychogenic amnesia and organic amnesia. Psychogenic amnesia refers to instances in which memory loss is presumed to have a purely psychological basis. Traumatic events may have altered the patient’s brain but no physical damage is observed. Organic amnesia on the other hand, is a direct result of brain injury that can be caused by any number of factors: impaired blood supply, tumors, infections, etc (4). Amnesia can affect recollection of experiences occurring either subsequent to the appearance of the disorder (anterograde amnesia) or those that took place prior to its onset (retrograde amnesia) (3).

What stages or aspects of the memory processes are impaired? Neuropsychologists have devoted considerable attention to the nature of memory deficits, specifically with regard to anterograde amnesia (4). The hippocampus and other structures in the medial temporal lobe mediate the consolidation and storage of new memories and thus it seems likely that if some error in memory processing did occur, it would be in these areas of the brain (3). Some theories propose a disruption in the memory process at the initial registration of information. Amnesic patients have the ability to encode sensory properties of information but fail to process it into something meaningful. Another theory suggests the problem lies at the stage of memory consolidation, where information is established into permanent form. Other theories suggest accelerated forgetting or the failure to store or retrieve encoded sensory input is responsible (4).

“Memories are us. They are a function of our past experiences and a framework for our future selves. Moreover, what we individually chose to remember or forget is intrinsic to who we are (1).” Do memories create our identity? What if we lose the ability to choose what we remember or forget, as is the case for those suffering from amnesia? Does this mean they have somehow lost their identity? ‘Mr. Nobody,’ as referred to by the British media, once had a name, a birth certificate, and a career. He used to be a 'somebody' until he was robbed of his wallet, his memory, and essentially his identity on the streets of Toronto. In November of 1999, he awoke in a hospital bed without a clue of who he was and now, three years later is still suffering from a detrimental memory disorder. “Mr. Nobody lives in a vacuum, haunted by a past he cannot remember and a future he cannot plan (5).” In this case, Mr. Nobody’s inability to recall the events of his past has striped away his identity-his mere existence is unbearable without a past to define it. Mr. Nobody however, has not lost the ability to create new memories, but perhaps part of who we are includes memories both from the past and from the present.

“Memory is history recorded in our brain, memory is a painter, it paints pictures of the past and of the day (Grandma Moses).” Are we then, by definition, a product of our memories and experiences past and future?


1) Now where did I put my keys. World and I. volume 13, 1998 (160-168).
5)The Case of 'Mr. Nobody'

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