Sunday, April 09, 2006

Just the first chapter of Jonathan Cott's On The Sea of Memory: A Journey from Forgetting to Remembering made me want to write about it. Cott is a wrinter who suffered from from clinical depression severe enough that he received 36 electroconvulsive therapy treatments -- and as a result, he lost his memories of fifteen years of his life, from 1985 to 2000. All those years of world events and personal experiences: gone. (And he is not alone -- electroshock treatment is still in use by psychotherapists who claim that memory loss from it is rare, but Cott assembles testimony from enough others in his situation that it seems to be something common enough to merit great consideration by anyone who might administer it or have it administered to them.)

What would I do if I lost years of memories? It's hard to imagine. I've always been a diarist -- even in 1985 when I was twelve -- so the bare facts of my personal experiences would be preserved for me to read. But waking up in a world still in the Cold War? And a time before I even knew how to type, much less spent hours daily online? (And now, I earn my living by typing, too.) It's also interesting to consider memory vs. skill -- that is, in the same way that some people who have brain damage making it difficult to speak can still sing easily, I would have assumed that what I think of as a muscle-training skill, like typing or knitting, would stay even when memory of events is gone. But one of the memory-loss victims Cott cites mentioned having forgotten how to weave, so I don't know.

The following chapters of On The Sea of Memory are discussions with memory experts of various types: a neurobiologist who made a discovery about the role of stress hormones in making traumatic memories; the author of a book on Alzheimer's disease; the author of a book on techniques of memory enhancement; a neuropsychiatrist/neurologist; the author of a book on the controversy of false memories, and experts on memory and the soul from several religions. It's all really fascinating, even though I personally don't accept all the perspectives given. I think it's rare to find a book that looks at the meaning and importance of memory from so many angles; an education for both those, like me, who are inclined to approach from the physical side, and for others who might come from a spiritual or other perspective. And it's also a great starting bibliography on the subject, as many of the people featured in individual chapters have written their own books on their approach to the subject. (I'm particularly interested in reading a copy of In The Shadow Of Memory, another account of a writer's memory loss (this time due to brain lesions).