Marcel Proust wrote about memory in Swann’s Way. Like Turner’s famous paintings of sunsets, Proust took readers inward to cull, witness, enjoy, and interpret that great terrain of the remembered past.
A great deal of our identity is shaped by what we remember about the past. Memory, in most people, is variable, fickle, and unreliable. At the base level, memory is a pattern recognition system rooted in the billions of neurons in our brain. In a recent National Geographic article titled Remember This by Joshua Foer, the author recounts Jorge Luis Borges famous short story about memory:
“In his short story Funes the Memorious, Jorge Luis Borges describes a man crippled by an inability to forget. He remembers every detail of his life, but he can't distinguish between the trivial and the important. He can't prioritize, he can't generalize. He is ‘virtually incapable of general, platonic ideas.’ Perhaps, as Borges concludes in his story, it is forgetting, not remembering, that is the essence of what makes us human. ‘To think,’ Borges writes, ‘is to forget.’”
The article explores the world of AJ who literary remembers everything that has happened to her. The mental world of this 41-year-old woman is one that drug companies are working to bring to the general public.
“Within the past decades, drug companies have elevated the search to brave new heights. Armed with a sophisticated understanding of memory's molecular underpinnings, they've sought to create new drugs that amplify the brain's natural capacity to remember. In recent years, at least three companies have been formed with the express purpose of developing memory drugs. One of those companies, Cortex Pharmaceuticals, is attempting to develop a class of molecules known as ampakines, which facilitate the transmission of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Glutamate is one of the primary excitatory chemicals passed across the synapses between neurons. By amplifying its effects, Cortex hopes to improve the brain's underlying ability to form and retrieve memories. When administered to middle-age rats, one ampakine was able to fully reverse their age-related decline in the cellular mechanism of memory.”
The memory wonder drug raises all kinds of questions for which there are no immediate answers:
“All of this raises some troubling ethical questions. Would we choose to live in a society where people have vastly better memories? In fact, what would it even mean to have a better memory? Would it mean remembering things only exactly as they happened, free from the revisions and exaggerations that our mind naturally creates? Would it mean having a memory that forgets traumas? Would it mean having a memory that remembers only those things we want it to remember? Would it mean becoming AJ?”
Now exactly where did I leave my cell phone?