Fleeting memory

‘Quick’. ‘Look’. ‘Top of the trellising’. And there they were, just two metres away, a pair of goldfinches. I knew that they were around, we had talked about them often, but this was the first time I had actually seen them, and in our own garden too. They were small (shorter than a robin), and exquisitely coloured with vivid red and yellow dashes. Unlike the neat, not to say dandy, elegance of the blue tit, the colours of the goldfinch are brazen, almost theatrical, like hurriedly thrown-on make up. But it works.

Then 30 seconds later the pair were off, but of course, the image stayed on in my mind’s eye. The fleeting episode was captured to be relived again and again. What a genius of an apparatus are our brains, and this capacity is not limited to sight, it is the same for any sensation. One of my sons wrote a piece of music for my birthday and played it twice after the party. The opening bars have stuck, and I can hear them in my head and enjoy them whenever it suits.

How very different is this skill for those who can no longer remember things that have just happened. For the few years before her death, my mother-in-law, who had Alzheimer’s disease [see Last Words, 10th September, 2011], could rarely retain any such images. Had she been with us that morning she would have seen, and been excited by, the goldfinches but minutes later the image would have gone. It was so sad that with her incapacity to store, there was no opportunity for her to gain pleasure from simply ‘replaying the tape’ – the recording machine was broken.

In so many ways such a loss is debilitating. But there are possible advantages. At an almost trivial level, reading a good section in a book gave her endless pleasure. When she was in a mood to read, she could reread a choice page over and over again and each time she found it as new and as amusing as ever, and it would bring her a smile. Then there was the episode of her broken hip. The physiotherapist told us that it would mend quickly. She was, he said, so forgetful that she would not remember that walking hurt. Accordingly, and in keeping with his predictions, she would attempt exercise with impunity, and more importantly without anxiety. Yes, it did hurt at first when she moved, but every day she gave it another try and the speed of her recovery was seen by many as remarkable.

Interestingly, in some circumstances the abolition of short-term memory, particularly of painful events, is natural. What happened during the few seconds before I had a serious bicycle accident and was knocked unconscious, has been deleted. And after many minor operations, doctors routinely prescribe drugs that dim memory for the episode. But in these instances the memory loss is for the one event only and selective, for my mother-in-law the loss was for everything and there all the time. However, with memory loss she was spared thinking about the horrors of the last years of dementia. How awful that would be.

Photo credit: Sergey Yeliseev (under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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