Down Memory Highway

Most probably that’s how generations to come will describe their pathos whenever they would like to recall their trip down memory lane, because they would be soaked in their yearning for past play stations, computer games, sophisticated mobiles and their Facebook adventures.

But we of the old generation are quite happy with our memory lanes.

At the time of writing many of us would be perusing some articles from that Centennial magazine of the Alma Mater, Royal College Curepipe, which was launched last month by the President of the Republic. There would be floods of memories and most of us would come to know for the first time the origin of the nickname ‘Cotoc’ for the Usher, Mr Maureemootoo. I had previously heard a different version, which I suspect was the projection of a teen’s fertile imagination.

We love our memory, because it gives us our character, it makes us what we are. Its pivotal role in our life can be appreciated more if perchance it were to be erased suddenly by some malefic force.

What would I do if suddenly I find myself at the seaside and I cannot remember what road to take to return home? Suppose someone known to me does help me and gives me a lift to my place. I would still be at a total loss, asking myself what is this house when I reach there; if my wife should come out , she would be flabbergasted if she realizes that I can’t recognize her. Do not all these signs ring a bell and remind us of some elderly citizens we come across now and then and whom we have come to label as being senile and suffering from dementia? In their case, we take it as a natural consequence of old age.

But what would happen if suddenly planet earth experiences a virulent attack by some unknown, hypothetical virus affecting human brain and erasing the memory of all of us? We can fancy that there will be total chaos, and may be the imminent phasing out of the human race.

And thus the importance of our memory. One day or other we’ll realize that memory, like health, wealth and freedom, is appreciated only when it is being lost.

One will have to accept that it has a very complex relationship with consciousness, the concept of time and the self. And as with most of our faculties, it is naïve on our part to believe that it flourished out of the blue one good day during our evolution. Surely it evolved hand in hand with our language build up, intelligence and our self-awareness.

And the inevitable question is from where is it generated in our brain? As we go through the literature we discover, to our dismay, that there are so many theories and views by serious researchers that we must, finally, concede that we still know very little about one of our greatest attributes.

Aristotle believed that the memory of the newborn was like a blank slate, but gradually it got filled up with some sort of wax impressed experiences. Since then many people have contributed to unravelling the mystery that memory is. It has to do with our learning, experience and our remembrances. As an illustration, when I come to the word “Cosmos” for the first time I must necessarily know my a, b, c, d to begin with. Recalling my alphabet itself has to do with how much I remember of these words. Further, I must have a notion of the sky, of space so that I can now absorb a new conception, that of the cosmos. In so doing I reinforce all those previous memories, I keep learning and accumulating new experiences. It is what psychologists call reinforcement.

If I am allowed to digress a bit, many of us of the old generation as students had to go through many of textbooks, which had few illustrations. We read our books to discover, with frustration, that each page looked just as black and white as its predecessor. Our memory was overloaded, and we struggled to emerge the wiser. Some of us started underlining or highlighting as we read only to find at the end of the day that almost the whole book had been marked! So our memory was again at a loss and we resorted to inventing all sorts of mnemonics. Some of us would draw a small red flower in the margin by the side of an important point to be memorized ; or a small blue house, a bizarre looking asterix, or a small tree hoping all along that we would remember the important fact, in thinking of the mnemonics. And to our dismay we would realize that we remembered the small house and the flower, but not the facts!

And then some of us invented another gimmick to reinforce our memory: suppose the professor had told us that “the blood volume of an individual is 70 ml per kilogram of body weight”. Anyone of us could remember this the following day. But when there are hundreds of facts to remember it became less evident? So we would tell ourselves, “ok, when I get out of the classroom, walk down the verandah and pass by the side of the Post Office I will force myself to remember that fact.” But nothing would happen, our plan forgotten. That would go for some time and one good day as we walked by the PO once again we would wake up and tell ourselves: “The PO? There was something to remember. What was it?”

We had cajoled and humoured our memory along, just to remember hundreds of important facts. And ultimately in our final year, knowing quite well that the examiners might ask us about what we had learned five years earlier, we gave up. We suddenly decided to trust our memory fully, hoping that it would stand by us during the exams. And decades later, experienced as we had become, we could afford to be a bit more learned, we would climb on our philosophical high horse and write and pontificate to our children: “Dear children, to THINK that you know is not enough. You must KNOW that you know.” Conclusion that we ourselves had reached decades ago when we were burning the midnight oil with those heavy textbooks in our lap. The self talking to the memory, suppose. Setting up a sort of closed loop feedback mechanism.

But nothing could beat a night’s rest before an exam. Nowadays, cognitive scientists know that when we sleep our brain does not: it reorganizes our previous day’s experiences and classifies them in the memory module from which retrieval is possible at any time. That’s why the Sudoku “casse-tête” of last night becomes child play the following morning.

The present theory is that there are what are called the sensory, short-term and long-term memory. The first, the sensory, lasts for a fraction or one second. We see many facts and impressions of our environment at the same time, and we may or may not remember them. But the general impression is that we may have seen much more than what we can describe. And the short module may last for a minute or a few. Here there is a famous theory saying that we’ll remember 7 plus or minus 2 facts. And for the elderly it becomes important because that’s what we forget most often — recent facts and occurrences. I take my car key to go out, then I decide to drink some water before leaving, and as I proceed towards my car I realize that the car key is missing. Where have I put it? A recent article reminds us that the trick is to go back into the original spot where one was when the key was grasped, to go back to the water bottle, play the film backwards so to say. It has been found that such lacuna is more frequent after passing through a door going from one room into another!

The long-term memory is more solidly anchored in our grey cells and has links to past emotions. Now with psychologists and neuroscientists working together more experiments are being done.

Babies of five months have been shown to start memorizing faces on photos. It is found that our short-term memory needs only certain parts of our brain for proper functioning while our long-term one will need many or all regions of our brain. One part, the amygdala monitors our emotions; it plays a role whenever we recall memories loaded with feelings. We always remember negative, painful, strife stricken memories. They are meant to protect us when we face new dangers in our life. Another part, the hippocampus coordinates our long-term memories, sometimes called autobiographical memories.

As to our highway generation, it would point with pride to a PC if you talk about memory because, in some aspects, our brain has some resemblance to a computer. The talk is of encoding, storage and retrieval. Similar modules are used to give a better description of our memory; however the resemblance may stop here. Our brain is much more complicated than a computer which can do very few transactions at a go, while we humans can exercise many of our senses at the same time, and all these play a role in fortifying a memory. Association of colours, shades, fragrance, audio modulations is well known to us as we make a trip in the past.

Many of us will suddenly have a trace of a forgotten taste, a flitting vision of a colour that will open the gate to a flood of memories. The rustling of leaves in the treetops at sunset during winter, a musical old melody will suddenly throw us back to the early fun days at our grandparents place. That would be the result of a lot of interwoven impressions occurring at that particular time in the past, one memory leading and reinforcing each other. And it brings along all the feelings and emotional well-being that we experienced at that time. And the nice thing is that this episode can be played over and over again. It is a permanent record.

Nowadays scientists are busy trying to find out the mechanisms of memory, and there are many lines of study that combine knowledge of the brain cells functioning with concepts based on the computer. But maybe memory is just another facet of consciousness and self-awareness – complicated and elusive to define!


* Published in print edition on 25 April 2014

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