Friday, December 24, 2010

SUPERIOR MEMORY

The other day on Sixty Minutes, Leslie Stall interviewed quite an extraordinary, and rare group of people. When I heard that the segment was on memory I got excited. Memory, or lack thereof, has been a big question mark with me.

The five people examined, two women and three men, have a variance or perhaps a gift called Superior Autobiographical Memory. Like the terminology indicates, they’re capable of recalling pretty much every single day of their life. They can remember the banal, uneventful events of any particular moment in time from their distant or near past.

I sat there, absolutely fascinated as Leslie interviewed them and asked them question from days gone by. “Oh yes!” the man replied, “that was March 3rd, 1994 when I stubbed my toe…” He was a Pittsburgh Steelers aficionado, a die-hard fan who remembered each play of every game against…I can’t remember whom or when. But you can be sure, he did. He knew exactly what the strange look on the quarterback’s…or was it the running back’s face meant that day. One of the female Superior Autobiographical Memory wunderkinder was Marie Lou Henner, the actress from the show Taxi. Among other things, she connected dates to the pair of shoes she wore. Now that really impressed me.

Each of the five responded with such vivid detail, including their emotional state during the specific past occurrence. They all agreed that they could categorize events in their head and organize them according to whatever criteria they chose, (Yeah! You go Marie Lou, classify those shoes!). They were able to practice mental gymnastics with their phenomenal memory.

While I was watching and listening to them, suddenly it dawned on me. I’m the exact opposite. I have even less memory than the “normal” people to which I like to think I belong. I blame multiple surgeries. My theory is, that with each longer stretch under anesthesia, I’ve lost some of my history. I have crater-size gaps in my past, but I don’t know what they are because…well…I don’t remember. However, I do remember a great deal about my illness (hence the autobiography). And, since my illness took up most of my life, ergo I remember most of my life. (Whew! An elegant save…).

After putting the five through several tests, including an MRI, scientists discovered that there’s a reason for their ├╝ber memory. Their cortical nucleus is a lot larger than ours. This particular area of the brain creates adrenaline, the substance that increases whenever we have an emotional reaction. In other words, if we feel embarrassed, sad, excited, hurt, angry or any spike of emotion, our adrenaline levels rise. When that happens, we tend to remember those particular events. Basically more adrenaline means more memory.

Now imagine always having higher levels of adrenaline. That is the case in our five candidates. So while we “normal” people have selective memory, they have constant memory. And I, low man on the “normal” memory totem pole, have my husband. Without him I don’t think I’d ever remember where my glasses were.

Hmmm, I thought, I’m not so sure I would want to remember that much of my past. Like I need to bring up anxiety, fear and pain again? I don’ think so. I’m thrilled that pain is the first thing you forget. Serioulsy.”

And by the way, doesn’t having this awesome memory kind of take the fun out of…remembering? Isn’t it great when someone reminds you about something in your past and you can exclaim, “Yeah! Wow! Now I remember!!” I actually say that a lot.

Our five candidates also displayed characteristic mostly associated with autism. Scientists discovered OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder) behavior in them. Marie Lou has a closet full of shoes neatly placed on shelves, one facing front, and the other facing back, so that she may see the heal and toe. A must for her. The Pittsburgh Steelers aficionado washes his hands much more often than any of us would. Oddly enough, the three men were all left handed, while the two women were right handed. Even stranger is the fact that out of the five, only Marie Lou was married. Currently she’s on husband number four. I’m guessing it’s hard to stay married when you can’t loose an argument. The rest were single.

Despite these somewhat strange patterns, they were quite pleased with their ability. Well, of course they’re pleased, I thought, because duh, it is what it is. They don’t know what it means NOT to remember, just as we, normal folks, don’t know what it means to remember every day of our life.

When the show ended I wasn’t sure what to make of it. So they have boundless memory, and I have boundless forgetfulness. Who’s better off? They think they are, and I’m pretty convinced that I am. In the end, it’s best to be happy with what you have. While I’m engrossed in learning language number eight, I'm sure I'll forget where I’ve placed my glasses, and my husband will have to remind me where they are. That's what you call real selective memory. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

THE MOTIVATOR

Yesterday I watched one of my favorite shows, called Real Sports With Bryan Gumbel. One of the segments was about a father and son team. The son was born with his mother’s umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He had been deprived of oxygen long enough to cause severe motor and mental damage. He was unable to move any part of his body or speak. At the time of his birth, his parents decided to care for him at home rather than put him into a facility. This meant dealing with every aspect of his life, for the rest of his life. Washing him, carrying him, grooming him, feeding him and all else associated with a person who can’t do anything for himself. They did realize however, that he was alert and far from mentally challenged.

As the boy grew into a young man, they found a way to communicate with him. With the help of a machine conceived for him, the young man goes through each letter of the alphabet until he finds the one he needs to formulate a word. The process is painstaking and time consuming, but allowed the young man one day to express, quite eloquently, a very specific thought. He wanted to take part in a triathlon.

His father, a retired Lieutenant Colonel, was out of shape and frankly, not at all prepared for such a request. However, now that he was divorced, he could dedicate himself entirely to his son and try to fulfill his wish. He and his son moved to the country and together, they undertook the grueling task of getting into shape.

The father hadn’t ridden a bike since he was a boy, but now he was riding twenty-four miles with his son strapped in a special seat attached to his handlebars. The father was never able to swim more than a few feet. But now, not only was he swimming, but also he was pulling his son behind him in a dingy for two miles. The father hadn’t jogged much in his life. But now he was jogging six miles while pushing a carriage in front of him with his son in it. All of this for their first triathlon as a team.

The two of them began their journey of training and competing almost thirty years ago and have never stopped since. They continue to do so, always placing among the first. People have taken notice, and over the years, father and son have gained a certain celebrity status. Thanks to their example, currently there exist groups of volunteers that run or jog pushing mentally and physically impaired children in carriages. Parents, who have met or heard of the team, have been motivated to become more active with their disabled child.

In the interview, the father said he was convinced that his son had made him an athlete. He said, that if he had tried to do the triathlon on his own, without his son, he wouldn’t have succeeded. When the interviewer asked him what the secret was, the father simply answered “devotion.”

I am in awe of this father and son team. They took a devastating situation and turned it into a mutually beneficial, and healthy collaboration. They made lemon parfait out of sour lemons. I’m fascinated how the father found his motivation through his son’s impairment. The father isn’t racing the triathlons on his own energy. There is a flow from son to father and vice versa. They have a symbiotic connection, whereby the son gives his dad the strength and energy, which is trapped in his body and that he himself will never be able to release. The father, through his athletic prowess, makes it possible for his son to thrive beyond the confines of his disability. And in the process, they inspire hundreds of others to see their own disabled child in a different, much more positive light.

I often wonder if we are all gifted with the capacity to go beyond ourselves and ardently dedicate time and energy to another, knowing that nothing will ever be given in return? In the depth of my soul, I tend to believe that devotion is the core of who we are. It’s all that is good in us, all that makes a life worthy. I’m mistaken to assume that nothing is gotten in return because in fact, devotion to another human being brings rewards beyond our imagination. Much more important than the father/son celebrity status, is the joy they feel achieving their goals, the peace of mind for having done their best, and the bond they have forged along the way.