Have you ever considered how different you would be without your memories?
You know who you are. You know because you remember waking up this morning, in a bad/good (delete as appropriate) mood because of what had come the day before, or what you dreamt, or what you remembered you had coming today. You know what foods you like, who you like and who you don’t, what your favourite colour is and what you’re good at. You know who you are, as defined by the experiences that have made you.
But what if you’d woken up this morning and couldn’t remember any of it? Who would you be then? Would you still hate coriander and love Frank Sinatra when you tried them? Would you be a strong person, a dreamer, a pessimist?
To be ourselves, we must know ourselves. We must be able to recall our story to be able to maintain our position as the protagonist. Your perception of yourself through time with regard to your emotional state, opinions, habits, skills and social attributes is surely how you define yourself. Without knowing these things, would you still be you?
Medical history has provided some examples of patients losing their autobiographical memory, yet maintaining their ability to form new ones. But this is a current issue. Dementia has just overtaken heart disease as the leading cause of death in Britain. Although many other events are taking place in dementia sufferer’s brains, loss of memory is a symptom, as are personality changes. Indeed, changes in preference have been used as an early diagnostic tool.
A specific example can be found in Korsakov’s Syndrome. This occurs due to a Thiamine deficit, often caused by alcoholism. Its symptoms include anterograde and retrograde amnesia: The inability to form new memories or recall old ones respectively. The inability of a patient to form new memories surely won’t affect their personality, rather keep them stuck at the point where they are now infinitely. However, if they struggle to recall old memories, they can begin to lose their sense of self. The case of William Thompson, cited in Oliver Sack’s book, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, shows this phenomenon: Thompson was unable to recall many of his memories prior to where his amnesia began. He would subsequently form incorrect memories to fill his reality, although he was obviously unaware he was doing so. In a taxi ride, he told wild tales of travelling the world, leaving the driver amazed. None of these were true, although while saying them he truly believed they were. Is this a case of someone losing who they are due to a loss of their memories? Perhaps. Interestingly, however, Thompson’s younger brother was the only person he could identify successfully, while he had no recollection of his elder brother dying some 19 years previously.
Another example can be found in Kent Cochrane’s story. Also known as ‘Patient K. C.’, Cochrane suffered a severe head injury in a motorcycle crash. Upon waking in hospital, it became clear that he had memory impairments. Cochrane could recall factual information from before the crash, but no memories that he had personally experienced: he had lost his episodic memory – his ability to recall autobiographical events such as his brother’s death. Specific information on his personality changes is lacking, but one could argue that Cochrane was no longer himself. If he couldn’t remember any of who he was, how could he possibly still be that person, and react and feel as that person would have done.
The ultimate question posed is: without the ability to recall our story, is it even ours?
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