May 12, 2009

Modes of Association

New research into memory (and the mapping of the brain's management of memory) has led to an astounding result: the development of an experimental drug that, when delivered to a certain area of the brain, could disable the connections between the cells that hold a memory within the brain, and effectively erase that memory and its associations. 
The positive spin on this development is that it makes it possible to think of a future where people are not plagued by addiction, for example, or traumatic stress. Which is a creepily delightful refutation of the mantra that everything happens for a reason...because now the things you didn't really want to happen to you, or didn't really want to witness, can be undone. But what if those memories you'd like to delete provide the underpinnings of your identity or your ethical conscience? That is a whole other sticky issue.
Memory is the field any artist plows through every day, turning earth to reveal the tender and the grotesque. I wouldn't choose to take the drug. Besides, while being alive means being conscious of self, it also means being conscious of (and taking in) how others' memories have shaped them, wounded them, strengthened them. 
About ten years ago, I sat in my friend Mary's living room and had an intense conversation with her house guest -- a woman in her late 60's who told me that her family had been murdered twenty years earlier. She explained that her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild had been at Jonestown and had been killed by Jim Jones. I'd never met anyone who had been so closely connected to that (or any) act of violence, and had no idea I ever would meet someone just sitting near me in a living room in Philadelphia whose adult life was so shaped by that experience.
This woman lived her experience, and I simply heard from her about it -- but my brain has retained the memory of her words, her face, the light in the room, the lumpiness of the couch I was sitting on at the time. The question is, what triggered the retention of that memory for me, the listener? The easy way out is to claim emotional impact, but this was not the first time she had told the story, and this was not a person I had any connection with before (or since) that day. In truth, I think it imprinted because it triggered a question in my mind; time froze there -- the light, the couch, her words -- and I knew she was describing anguish I have never (and hopefully will never) have to suffer about people I love, but I also knew she was talking about a kind of thinking that she could not understand. 
She told me she had never understood her child's commitment to the idea of Jonestown, and she also did not understand why people spoke about the victims there as if they were the agents of their own lives. And what imprinted for me as a memory was precisely that ethical quandary -- I too could not understand how people wind up in situations that demand an exchange of group acceptance for their free will. I think its what triggered my brain to retain the conversation, because considering will, agency, morality, and choice is what my brain has always spent a lot of time doing.
Of course, I'd want to give her the memory-erasing drug, to somehow ease the pain of her horrific loss. 
But I don't know that she'd choose the same. 

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