The Atlantic has a sublime article on identity, memory and amnesia – written as a reflection on meeting a friend who has lost much of his memory due to an advancing brain tumour.
The author is neuropsychologist Daniel Levitin who is better known for his work on the cognitive science of music, but here he writes beautifully about how theories of memory can blend uncomfortably with individual experience.
Once Tom and I were sitting next to each other when Pribram told the class about a colleague of his who had just died a few days earlier. Pribram paused to look out over the classroom and told us that his colleague had been one of the greatest neuropsychologists of all time. Pribram then lowered his head and stared at the floor for such a long time I thought he might have discovered something there. Without lifting his head, he told us that his colleague had been a close friend, and had telephoned a month earlier to say he had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor growing in his temporal lobe. The doctors said that he would gradually lose his memory — not his ability to form new memories, but his ability to retrieve old ones … in short, to understand who he was.
It’s a wonderfully written piece that is subtly recursive, like memory itself.