You never realize what a good memory you have until you try to forget something.
-Franklin P. Jones
Husband and I started watching a new British series on Netflix the other night. It’s called Black Mirror. We’ve already finished two seasons, though in all fairness there are only 3 episodes per season. The show is brilliant. It is a frightening look at the potential dark side of technology and most of the stories are set in the near future.
One episode in particular really struck a chord with me. In it everyone has an implant behind their left ear that records everything they do. It’s basically a video camera in the eye and it records your entire life. You can rewind that interview you had and analyze the future employer’s remarks; you can re-live the one night stand you had ten years ago; you can replay a fight you had with your wife. And not only can you replay it for yourself, you can project the images onto your television and have anyone you want to watch it. Imagine the argument one has with his wife about the one night stand he had in college. It was a brief fling and never meant anything, but the wife isn’t so sure so she asks him to replay the night only to discover that he dated this girl for six months. In the future you can’t lie; you can’t reinvent your past; you can’t remember an event happening differently to suit your own conscience. It’s all there digitally stored forever. Unless, that is, you decided to erase the memory. Erasing the memory is possible but then you are left with a blank screen for that duration. You can’t really erase it then can you?
In this episode the protagonist comes to realize that his life with his wife has been a lie and he removes the device from behind his ear. Suddenly the screen goes black. End credits roll.
By removing the implant has he erased his memories. Is he now a tabula rasa?
If you could erase a memory from your life, would you?
I’ve asked myself this question a lot over the past few days. I haven’t experienced anything truly terrible in my life, thank goodness (and knock on wood!) but there are some things I wonder if I would be better off forgetting I went through. If you could erase the memory of a relationship or the presence of a person from your memory, would you? Would it change the person you were now if you didn’t have the memory of it? Or are we forever changed because we experienced it? Are we better off remodeling our memories to suit our own conscience or is having a digital record better?
A person’s memory is everything, really. Memory is identity. It’s you.
-STEPHEN KING, Duma Key
Another doctor’s appointment with my dad. I got up at the crack of dawn just as the baby was waking up for his bottle. My dad’s appointment was at a downtown hospital early this morning so I had to hustle to get there on time. They had already started with the nurse when I arrived. She was just starting to get his history as I sat down on the exam room table. Looking around it was your typical hospital office/exam room. I noted the clock on the wall and stared at it for a second, realizing it wasn’t working; I checked my phone to confirm the time. Dad was busy talking away with the nurse. My eyes kept returning to the clock; probably five minutes elapsed before I realized why I was drawn to the clock.
By this point the nurse was starting the memory testing with my dad so while I was trying to pay close attention to how he was doing and mentally trying to remember how to score the test as he did it, several minutes elapsed and I noticed something else about this clock.
It was very surreal. I wish I could describe the thought processes my brain went through when it was trying to reconcile what I was seeing with what I know about how a clock should look and act. When it all came together I almost laughed out loud but I restrained myself as at this point in the interview, my dad was asked to draw a face of a clock and put the hands of the clock on to show a specific time – 10 minutes after 11.
The clock drawing test is a brief but highly informative tool that physicians and psychologists use to test an individual’s executive functioning. It is a very easy test to administer and is part of the screening tests used to diagnose, or exclude, a diagnosis of dementia. My heart skipped a beat when I watched my father do it. He drew the circle, placed the numbers and the hands of the clock correctly, without missing a beat. I’m pretty sure I breathed a sigh of relief when he was done. In fact, most of his cognitive testing was normal, particularly in executive functioning, language and calculation skills. Where he failed was in memory and recall – pretty much exactly what we’ve noticed over the past year or so.
We were reassured in one respect that his issues right now are mild and that 90% of individuals with amnestic mild cognitive impairment remain stable over time. Yet now as I am reading up on mild cognitive impairment, it is widely considered to be a precursor to Alzheimer’s dementia. I think it might be time to stop reading. He’s going to be seen again next summer and I suppose we will just have to take the “wait and see” approach. Right now there’s nothing we can do and for a doctor who is also a daughter, that’s probably the hardest thing in the world to be told.