Josh Foer on memory

The cover story of this month's National Geographic is a curious, provocative, and thoughtful feature about the weirdness of human memory. I was delighted to see that it was written by Joshua Foer, who is well known for his work if not his name, as the secretary/blogger of the Athanasius Kircher Society. Foer, a winner of the World US Memory Championship himself, is currently writing a book about the art and science of memory, due out in 2009. I can't wait! From his National Geographic article, titled "Remember This":

There is a 41-year-old woman, an administrative assistant from California known in the medical literature only as "AJ," who remembers almost every day of her life since age 11. There is an 85-year-old man, a retired lab technician called "EP," who remembers only his most recent thought. She might have the best memory in the world. He could very well have the worst.

"My memory flows like a movie–nonstop and uncontrollable," says AJ. She remembers that at 12:34 p.m. on Sunday, August 3, 1986, a young man she had a crush on called her on the telephone. She remembers what happened on Murphy Brown on December 12, 1988. And she remembers that on March 28, 1992, she had lunch with her father at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She remembers world events and trips to the grocery store, the weather and her emotions. Virtually every day is there. She's not easily stumped...

EP has two types of amnesia–anterograde, which means he can't form new memories, and retrograde, which means he can't remember old memories either, at least not since 1960. His childhood, his service in the merchant marine, World War II–all that is perfectly vivid. But as far as he knows, gas costs less than a dollar a gallon, and the moon landing never happened.

AJ and EP are extremes on the spectrum of human memory. And their cases say more than any brain scan about the extent to which our memories make us who we are. Though the rest of us are somewhere between those two poles of remembering everything and nothing, we've all experienced some small taste of the promise of AJ and dreaded the fate of EP. Those three pounds or so of wrinkled flesh balanced atop our spines can retain the most trivial details about childhood experiences for a lifetime but often can't hold on to even the most important telephone number for just two minutes. Memory is strange like that.

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