Memory Palace


I watched my mother slowly lose her mind. No, she did not go crazy, as we normally think of losing one’s mind. In some ways, her situation was worse. She suffered a debilitating loss of cognitive brain function due to vascular dementia, a neurological impairment that closely resembles Alzheimer’s disease. In the early stages, she exhibited the usual signs of memory loss, no longer able to put names to faces and getting lost while driving around town. But eventually she was reduced to a state of utter helplessness as her inner sense of the world gradually disintegrated.

Imagine waking every morning to a world in which absolutely nothing is familiar to you – not the persons in your life, not the places you normally go, not the routines you would otherwise perform without giving them a thought. Who is that stranger in your bed, the one who has to remind you that you have been married for decades? Who are those people in the family photos on the dresser? How do you find your way to the bathroom? Which toothbrush is yours, and how do you remove the cap to the toothpaste? How do you run water in the tub? Where does your dirty laundry go? Where are your clothes, and how do you put them on? So it goes throughout the day, every day, except that by now you would most likely not be able to perform any of these tasks unassisted. You are living a nightmare – or would be if you still had enough presence of mind to realize your predicament.

Neuroscientists tell us there is a cognitive map inside our heads that enables us to navigate the world. It is centered in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which not only processes memories of events, names and faces but also handles “spatial” memories that tell us where things are and where we have been. These work together to form a complete picture of the world, with everything in its place and properly labeled. This internal mapping system enables us to find our way to the bathroom in the dark and to remember where we left our car keys, as well as to locate the plumbing fixtures department at Lowe’s.

With Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, the neurons in the hippocampus come under devastating attack, which accounts for my mother’s early memory lapses and her getting lost in familiar surroundings. The symptoms only worsen with time. In later stages, there may be problems with color discrimination and contrast sensitivity, depth and motion perception, facial recognition and the ability to name common objects. The perception of time may become distorted, because the flow of events in one’s life is no longer anchored in memory. In extreme cases, dementia patients may lose the ability to form new memories altogether, even as older ones disappear.

Under normal circumstances, spatial memory is far more reliable than our recollection of names and faces. There is a common mnemonic device called the “memory place” that enables people to remember long lists of numbers or facts by associating each of them with a particular spot in a well-remembered location, like your childhood home. I haven’t set foot in the house where I grew up in more than 40 years, yet I have no doubt I could still find my way around there in the dark. I remember who lived in the houses on my street, the names of adjoining streets, where the schools were, the parks and the shopping centers, like it was yesterday.

The landscape of memory is so vivid that we tend to mistake it for the real thing. But it is not. We imagine that we live in the world, not realizing the extent to which the world we live in is actually the world that lives in us. This becomes apparent only when the wiring in our brains is scrambled by dementia. The memory place that we assumed to be built on the bedrock of time and space actually rests upon sand. Time and space as we actually perceive them are essentially mental constructs, part of the world that lives in us. Once these are taken away, we become like helpless newborns – or rather, we are reborn into the world as we first found it, without a past or a future, a world that is forever new.

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