Memory Hole

You won’t find a memory hole on any diagram of the human brain, but we’ve all got one. It’s the place where memories go to die. George Orwell coined the term in his dystopian novel 1984. It refers to chutes at the Ministry of Truth where workers disposed of inconvenient historical documents that no longer conformed to Big Brother’s current propaganda line. The chutes fed into an incinerator where the truth was obliterated. The brain performs a similar function, although not so much to obliterate the truth as to get rid of memories that aren’t worth remembering, like what we had for lunch last Tuesday, our locker combination in eighth grade or the name of our boss’s boss at our first job. Of course, the mind is still cluttered with all sorts of junk that isn’t worth remembering but hasn’t been forgotten. Then there are those frustrating moments when we try to remember a name or a fact that has apparently gone into hiding, if not disappeared forever down the memory hole.

“We remember that we forget,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal. As vexing as this may be, it is not as worrisome as forgetting altogether that we have forgotten things we should have remembered. This happened to my mother, who was diagnosed with vascular dementia, a close relative of Alzheimer’s disease. Your memory unwinds in reverse, starting with what happened five minutes ago and working backward. And since who you are is largely what you remember, your whole life starts unwinding in reverse. You eventually become as helpless as a child. You forget how to balance a checkbook, how to cook, how to dress yourself. In the later stages, you forget how to swallow and must go on a soft diet for fear of aspirating solid foods.

According to St. Augustine, memory is a faculty of the soul, along with understanding and will. He wrote in his Confessions that memory was a “large and boundless chamber” filled with “heaven, earth, sea, and whatever I could think on therein” – in short, the whole world as we experience it and everything we know about it. Even more important, the ability to remember is the faculty that enables us to “mount by stages” toward God. Augustine did not believe God could be apprehended directly through the five physical senses but only inwardly through the mind, which for Augustine was nearly synonymous with memory.

St. Augustine may have been the first to link time to memory rather than to something in the external world. Like memory, time cannot be apprehended directly through any of the five senses. Yet we all have an uncanny sense that time is passing, even if we can’t quite put our finger on exactly what passes. “What then is time?” Augustine wondered. “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” Eventually he concluded, "I say that I measure time in my mind. For everything which happens leaves an impression on it, and this impression remains after the thing itself has ceased to be....When I measure time it is this impression that I measure." This impression, of course, is a memory of something that occurred in the past but that now exists only as a thought.

As my mother’s situation demonstrated, memory is hardly the bedrock upon which to erect the edifice of time. As her mind was hallowed out from the inside, time became infinitely elastic, because she could no longer anchor her experience in memory. I would take her for drives, and she would want to turn around after five minutes because she thought we had been gone for hours. Then on the return trip she would marvel at how quickly we had gotten back home. Similarly, she could not judge distances because our starting point quickly disappeared in the fog of her recollection. Augustine was right to say that memory encompasses heaven and earth and everything in between, because when it disappears down the memory hole, your entire world disappears with it. Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are invariably fatal, but you are denied a quick death. Early on, you know full well what is happening to you. And then, perhaps mercifully, you don’t. With dementia, you die before you die, gradually losing everything that can be called you.

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