Saturday, September 22, 2007


Oliver Sacks writes an amazing article in this week's New Yorker about a man with the most severe case of amnesia ever recorded, who nevertheless never forgot how to play and conduct music.
I have always wondered why amnesiacs forget everything but can speak and walk and do most mechanical functions. Well, Dr. Sacks explains it beautifully, as always. I will not attempt to explain it back to you and completely maul the text and the science of it. But in a nutshell, we have different kinds of memories and their centers are located in different parts of the brain. Memories of the past are different from the memory that allows us to learn how to perform tasks, so that you could be an amnesiac like Guy Pearce in Memento and still be able to talk, walk and write or drive a car.
But without memory of the immediate past, you have no life. If you have no memory of the immediate past, everything happens for the first time every second, kind of like Groundhog Day, but much more nightmarish and scary. You live in a dark limbo of non being. I'm still trying to understand the implications of the different kinds of memories and how they work together, for I sense that this subject is deeply metaphysical, not only scientific. It's about how memory is identity and how having a past means having a life, and it is about the nature of time and of emotion. Stuff that requires lots of brainwork.
Sacks also talks about how we remember music, which he explains, we not actually remember it, but we relive it every time we hear a melody again.
The fact that this man was able to lift himself (temporarily) out of the darkness of a life without memory through music and through love is something enormous. I just hope they don't make the Hollywood weepie about the triumph of love with Reese Witherspoon as the wife.
It's tempting to give it a stab, though.
Please read the article. It is astounding.

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