Monday, October 22, 2012

The New Year's Eve we did the town, the day we tore the goalpost down...


There are lots of advantages about still being with the woman I married 54 years ago. One of them is supplementary memory.

Of our long time together, she remembers some things, and I remember others. A psychologist could probably have a jolly good time sussing out the reasons why some things stick and others slip away. Do men and women remember different things? Do A and B type personalities squirrel away different snippets from the past (me A, she B)? Do visual and aural types remember past events differently? There has probably been research on some of these topics, but I can't be bothered to look it up.

Some smidgy little detail that M. will remember from half-a-century ago strikes me as a stunning waste of neurons. When I pull up some mischievous scrap of the past she will roll her eyes and say, "You would remember that." Together, for better or worse, we've cached away a lot more of our common history than either one of us could manage alone.

Ah, memory. In wakefulness and dream. The slow accumulation of a self. More than any other creature, we are what we have been. Our souls are a gossamer of spidery neurons. And no one knows how.

Yet.

I turned with anticipation to an article in the October 5 issue of Science: "How Are Memories Retrieved." The neuroscience of memory is "complex and contentious," the author quickly concedes, and then goes on to survey research on rats and some human subjects that has begun to identify those parts of the brain involved in the storage and retrieval of memories. But how? For the moment, it all seems rather miraculous.

But there is no need to invoke an immaterial soul, or a miracle in a supernatural sense. I can type "Chet Raymo" into Google and instantly (.39 seconds) bring up stuff from my own past that I had long since forgotten, out of the Google servers -- those vast, cavernous warehouses of electronics -- the collective memory of our race. My brain has 100 billion neurons, each one reaching out with spidery arms to thousands or other spidery arms, one hundred trillion or so synapses, each synapse in any one of ten or so levels of excitation. My own little 3-pound server farm. Go on, M., prompt something from our past. See what comes up.