Moonwalking with Einstein: Chapter 4

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“He is trapped, I realize, in the ultimate existential nightmare, utterly blind to the reality in which he lives.” – Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

After finding some of the top memories in the world, Foer wanted to research some of the worst. In the above quote he speaks of EP, a research subject who due to a bout of herpes simplex lost two chunks of his medial temporal lobes (and most of his memory). EP cannot form new memories–he can hold on to a thought, but as soon as you divert his attention, it’s gone. He also can’t recall old memories, at least not anything since about 1950. EP forgets everything, including the fact that he forgets everything.

It’s interesting that Foer deems this “the ultimate existential nightmare”; I’d argue that for EP it’s more of a dream: a brief, usually pleasant, out-of-context walk through a semi-familiar world. To me, the term nightmare might be reserved for his wife. She seems pleasant enough as Foer describes her, I just can’t imagine having your husband not remember that he has grandchildren or that he already ate breakfast twice. But his daughter says he’s always very happy, presumably because of his lack of stress.

This leads into a discussion on memory and the true value of a life not remembered. Foer cites an experiment where a French chronobiologist went into a cave alone for two months in total isolation. He lost complete track of time and circadian rhythm, and at the end of the two months he only thought he’d been there for one. His days literally blurred into each other. Monotony breeds forgetting, but the “denser the web [of memories], the denser the experience of time” (Foer, 76). As we grow older, we have new experiences less frequently and thus monotony sets in and ‘time flies’. But if we go on vacations and try new new things, we are creating new memories and elongating our perception of our lives.