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You Can't Remember Half the Things You Used to -- How Much Does That Matter?

While memories may be all you have of the past, they're not all there is to being alive. There is something more.

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But what you didn't know in 10th grade was that there'd also come a day when you wouldn't be able to bound up and down the flight of stairs called "memory" like you used to. The realization that that day, too, has come is equally chilling.

What Does Science Say About All This Forgetfulness?

Science says, "You shouldn't be surprised."

It was the Stage Manager who taught you that, one day, your heart would be fluttering at the top of a flight of stairs and, by implication, one day, the rest of you would fall apart as well. (You're well on your way. "One day" is here. No matter how much you go to the gym, the Stage Manager was right: you still wheeze your way up that flight of stairs. Your skin is losing its resiliency. Your hair has long since fallen out. Too many of your clothes no longer fit. Without glasses, you have to hold a book no further than two inches from your face. Digestion and elimination functions have . . . well, "changed." Your knees hurt. Your old driver's license shows a man whom you no longer recognize. The guy on your new driver's license looks even stranger.)And you know there's nothing you can really do about it. You try to eat better, drink less, go to the gym as much as you can bear to. You do a fairly good job of not going gentle into that good night, but even as you continue to lament the decline, slowly, barely perceptibly, a grudging acceptance of the inevitable has begun creeping in. (While the acceptance is grudging, it isn't total. You're heartened and amused by the fact that not only has your inner adolescent somehow refused to die, he also still believes that you won't, either. Against all the considerable evidence to the contrary, deep, deep down, there's a part of you, insanely enough, that agrees with him.)

So, with every one of your nooks and crannies rotting away, from kidneys to penis and back again, why on earth shouldn't your memory be fading, too? After all, your memory is nothing but a function of your mind, and your mind —a psycho-emotio-spiritual miracle of the highest order, to be sure—is nothing but a product of the workings of your brain, which is, when you come right down to it, just another biological organ in—another similarly-running-out-of-steam nook or cranny of—the same old aging physical body that's rotting away, day in, day out. Well, if your feet can break down, or your spleen, why can't your brain? Why should your brain—and therefore your mind, and your memory—be any more exempt from decay than the rest of you?

Because they should. Because, they are just . . . well, different. Physical decline is understandable in a way that memory loss is not. Admittedly, everything about how the body works is miraculous, almost science fictional: that a cut heals itself by replicating pre-wound cells, for example, is no less astounding than a wound in a horror movie which, with the magical assistance of time-lapse photography, heals itself in seconds. So, yes, everything is a mystery. But physical changes—a smaller bicep? a ratty lung? or, uh-oh, a tumor on the pancreas?—at least you can see them. (You can sometimes even touch them.)

But a memory? A feeling or a thought that's become part of you? What's that about? You can sort of "get" how electricity can illuminate a light bulb or turn a motor or heat up the hair dryer you no longer need, but electrical charges that travel along a neural pathway, stored somehow and then, somehow, retrievable time and time again in the form of mental images and feeling-states and notions? Sure. Absolutely. Crystal clear. (You've seen multicolored images showing how different mental functions activate different areas of the brain. But what exactly do these pictures show you except colored images of the brain supposedly in action?) If it's hard to picture how all those electro-physio-chemical events give birth to a memory, it's impossible to envision what the story is when that memory dies; mysterious to begin with, infinitely more so once gone.

 
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