Jun 7, 2007

Memory and Forgetting

This hour of Radiolab, a look behind the curtain of how memories are made...and forgotten.

Remembering is an unstable and profoundly unreliable process--it’s easy come, easy go as we learn how true memories can be obliterated, and false ones added. And Oliver Sacks joins us to tell the story of an amnesiac whose love for his wife and music transcend his 7-second memory.

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JA: This is Radiolab, I’m Jad Abumrad

 

RK: And I’m Robert Krulwich.

 

JA: And today, our program is about memory

 

RK: Oh my god. Hey, we’re the radio people

 

XX: Yeah please you want to see the furniture

 

RK: I think most people think about memory kind of like

 

RK: So we’re interested in this filing cabinet

 

RK: A file cabinet in your brain

 

RK: I’m looking for a fairly large capacity

 

XX: This is traditional style

 

RK: Something happens in your life

 

RK: Is this real wood?

 

XX: Yeah, this is real wooden files

 

RK: You file it away

 

RK: Oh, this is pretty good

 

RK: And later when you wanna remember something you flip back through the files, there’s the one

 

XX: This one?

 

RK: Yeah

 

RK: You pick it up, oh yes I recall. And there it is, that’s the memory.

 

RK: Can you lock it?

 

XX: Yes we have the key

 

RK: Sure sometimes you forget where you filed it

 

RK: Let me see if I can get--

 

RK: But it’s there

 

RK: Oh I can’t--

 

RK: Somewhere. However, when we asked scientists about this analogy they pretty much all said

 

Scientists: No, no no no

 

XX: The filing cabinet analogy is completely wrong.

 

XX: Period

 

JA: Well maybe that’s because your metaphor is a little outdated, frankly. I think of memory as more like a, more like a hard drive

 

JA: Here we are, about to go into B&H

 

JA: That you might find at a tech store

 

JA: So much gear. Can you show me your hard drives?

 

XX: Sure

 

JA: Like your brain is basically a biological disc drive

 

XX: This little one is 320 gigabytes

 

JA: How big is big these days for a hard drive?

 

JA: And everything you do

 

XX: Up to two terabytes

 

JA: Everything you see

 

JA: Could I put all the images I’ve ever seen in my life, could it go onto this hard drive?

 

XX: Um

 

JA: Somehow all that experience gets stored in your head, in some kind of neural code

 

XX: Digital information is stored in zeros and ones

 

JA: Then later, when you wanna go back to it, you just find the right file, call it right up and there it is

 

XX: It’s all up on your computer screen

 

JA: Your memory. Just as you left it

 

XX: The way you put it in, the way you take it out, it’s all the same

 

JA: Never changes

 

XX: Never changes, zeros and ones

 

JA: But again, if you ask scientists about this analogy, they’ll tell you

 

Scientists: no, no wrong

 

XX: Memory isn’t like that. Memory is not an inert stack of zeros and ones

 

SFX: Malfunction, system is shutting down

 

RK: Well, if neither of those metaphors are an apt description of memory, then what--how should we think about memory?

 

JA: Well, maybe, and this is what we’re gonna look at this hour. Maybe it’s not as mundane as those metaphors would suggest. Maybe memory is more creative than that

 

RK: Creative?

 

XX: Yes. Yeah.

 

XX: On a literal level it’s an act of creation

 

XX: Exactly

 

XX: We’re reconstructing those memories

 

XX: Construction

 

JA: Maybe it’s more like painting or sculpture

 

XX: Everyone is constantly their own artist

 

XX: We take bits and pieces of experience

 

XX: Sometimes things get sharpened, some things leveled

 

XX: And infused with imagination and

 

XX: Out of that construct

 

XX: Construct

 

XX: Construct

 

XX: What feels like a recollection

 

XX: It’s a beautiful process

 

XX: It’s unbelievable

 

RK: OK, well we’ll see all that in the next hour coming up

 

JA: Right. This is Radiolab and later in the show by the way, a truly unbelievable story of amnesia. But let’s begin, simply as we can. What is a memory? Like where do you find a memory, where do you go to find it? There’s a scientist we met, Joe Ledoux, works at NYU, who started looking when he was very young, in the most obvious place

 

JL: As a child I worked in my father’s meat market and the way they--the cows were

slaughtered in those primitive days was with a .22 rifle

 

JA: They’d shoot them in the head?

 

JL: They’d shoot them in the head, yeah. And my job was to clean out the, clean the

brains

 

JA: This makes a convenient beginning to this story because perhaps

 

JL: The texture of the brain is very fun to play with

 

JA: While the young Ladue had his fingers in the cow’s brain

 

JL: You stick your fingers in there and have the sense that I Was reaching into the cow’s

soul

 

JA: Maybe he was also thinking, where in that mess are the cow’s memories?

 

JL: It had these rough membranes over it and just stripped it--

 

JA: Can I touch a memory, can I pinch it between my fingers?

 

JL: One bullet

 

JA: One bullet

 

JL: One tiny little bullet and my job was to go in and find it and remove it because if you

were eating brains, you didn’t want to chomp down on lead

 

JA: In any case, Ladue developed a thing for brains. And many years later in college, he’d get another chance

 

JL: I was taking courses in psychology

 

JA: Professor of his asked him to come into the lab

 

JL: --studying the brain mechanisms

 

JA: And work on rat brains. No bullets involved. This time he really would be searching for memories

 

JL: And I got hooked on it

 

JA: you with me?

 

JL: Yeah

 

JA: Alright. It was the 60s, right. Ladue was in school and it was an interesting time for the field he was about to enter. Scientists had just discovered this drug. They found that if you give this particular drug to

 

JL: I think it was done in goldfish first

 

JA: yeah, give it to a goldfish, squirt a little in the tank

 

JL: Into the water

 

JA: Suddenly

 

JL: The goldfish

 

JA: Can’t make a memory

 

JL: After goldfishes learn something

 

JA: They’ll swim around, have all kinds of experiences, but later, remember nothing

 

JL: They won’t form a long term memory for it

 

RK: What does a goldfish learn then, I mean--

 

JA: Uh. I actually have no idea. But apparently they do learn stuff, except when they have this drug in their system in which case they’ll learn stuff and forget it immediately. And the implications of this were huge

 

JL: Oh yeah

 

JA: According to science writer Jonah Lehrer

 

JL: Absolutely

 

JA: Because now for the first time, scientists could say that a memory, it’s a real thing

 

JL: It’s a physical thing. It’s not simply an idea, it’s a physical trace left in your brain.

 

JA: A trace made largely of

 

JL: Proteins. You know, proteins are the building blocks of memory

 

RK: Well how do they know that?

 

JA: Because of that drug

 

JL: It’s called anisomycin

 

JA: The amnesia inducing one.

 

RK: Mhm

 

JA: What it does it target proteins

 

JL: It prevents new proteins from being formed

 

JA: It busts them up

 

RK: And that means what exactly?

 

JA: Well no proteins, no memory. Well let me give you an example of how this works. And this is something Ledue ended up doing after college

 

JL: The methodology, can we start there?

JA: Sure

 

JA: He would take a rat, put it in a box, then play it a tone

 

JL: Just a five kilohertz pure tone

 

JA: Sort of like, boooop

 

JL: Something like that, yeah

 

JA: Now imagine you’re this rat. Your entire world is in this box. And suddenly a sound as if from God. and then the sound stops and you’re like, what was that--ow, hey he shocked me on my feet

 

JL: The shock is, you know, a mild electric shock.

 

DB: I mean it’s less than getting static electricity

 

JA: this guy who works in Ledoux's lab

 

DB: Hi, I’m David Bush

 

JA: He actually demonstrated it for me.

 

DM: Alright so what--

 

JA: Or on me

 

DB: What I’m going to do is have you put your fingers on there

 

JA: He made me touch the bottom of the cage

 

JA: I’m putting my fingers on the bottom of the cage, I’m a little scared. Yeah. Ah

 

JA: It’s really not that bad it’s static electricity really

 

JA: How--

 

RK: If you’re you, if you’re a rat it might be a whole other thing

 

JA: Even for a rat

 

RK: But what’s the point--why are we doing this?

 

JA: Oh well they’re trying to make the rat for a memory. And here’s how we now know that that works from the rat’s perspective. The moment it hears the tone and then feels the shock, inside it’s head, a bunch of neurons start to build a connection

 

DW: Whenever you create a memory, it’s an act of cellular constructions

 

JL: What we’re talking about now is associative memories. Associations between two

things in the outside world

 

JA: Between [tone] and [shock].

 

JL: Those two events have to somehow be connected

 

DW: Because if you’re building a bridge over a chasm and that connection

 

JA: That’s basically a memory. A memory is a structure that connects one brain cell to another. So the next time that the rat hears that damn tone, inside its brain, tone brain cells are physically connected to shock brain cells, it’s gonna know. That after this [tone] comes this [shock]. And so instead of just listening passively it’s gonna freeze

DW: The back is hunched and they’re just frozen solid

 

JA: Bracing itself for what is about to happen

 

DW: Exactly

 

JA: When Ledoux and his team see the rat freeze like that they know it is in the midst of remembering

 

JL: They’ll do that the rest of their life

 

JA: For life

 

JL: Lifetime memory

 

JA: However

 

DW: If you inject a chemical into the brain that prevents these neurons from building this

new architecture that a new memory requires, the rat will never form a memory. Because its neurons are prevented from forming all these new proteins, which a new memory requires

 

JA: And so whatever the rat was doing during the injection it will never remember

 

DW: Play it the noise and then shock it and then play it the noise and then shock it and

then play it the noise and then shock it and the rat never learned

 

JA: It will be like [tone] hey what’s that [shock] [tone] ooh what’s that [shock] [tone] ooh cool what’s that [shock]

 

DW: Perpetually surprised by the shock

 

JA: So the basic rule is that if you get to the memory while it’s being made, you can bust it up by inserting this drug

 

RK: So the memory never is actually formed

 

JA: Right, never committed to memory. But if the memory gets made and the protein bridge is there in your mind, it’s built and built for all time

 

RK: So if you have the memory in there then you cannot erase it

 

JA: Yeah it’s about timing. If you get there first you can erase it but if you get there after, no.

 

RK: OK

 

JA: And that’s what everyone thought. Until 2000. One day Ledoux was in his office and a guy walks in the door

 

DL: The person who walked through the door that day is Karim Nader

 

KN: Karim Nader. I would often just go into Joe’s lab and just tell him ideas and stuff

 

JA: This is Karim

 

JL: He was a postdoc in the lab

 

KN: I went into Joe’s office and said Joe, what do you think would happen if--

 

JA: What do you think would happen if instead of giving thet drug while the rat was making the memory, what if way after the fact we gave it the drug while it was remembering the memory

 

KN: You remember something

 

JA: Could we mess with the memory then?

 

KN: I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if that happend

 

JL: I said, well that will never work

 

KN: He said, that’s never gonna work

 

JL: Don’t waste our money

 

RK: It was just a very naive question

 

JA: Yeah because the memory is already there

 

RK: Right

 

JA: You can’t erase a memory that’s just already there. I mean have you ever seen that movie Eternal Sunshine of the SPotless Mind?

 

RK: No

 

JA: No? Well that’s essentially what he was proposing

 

KN: Yeah. it was crazy

 

CLIP: Here at Lacuna, we have perfected a safe effective technique of the focused erasure of troubling memories

 

KN: In this movie, Jim Carrey has all these memories he wants to get rid of

 

CLIP: I’m here to erase Clementine Christian

 

KN: And so he goes to this company that

 

CLI: Good morning, Lacuna

 

KN: Performs this service

 

CLIP: How are you today Mr. Baird

 

KN: And so they have him in this room

 

CLIP: Comfortable? Please try to focus on the memories.

 

KN: And he’s retrieving all these memories

 

CLIP: this is the day we met. Hi there. Hi. I’m Clementine

 

KN:And each time he retrieves one

 

CLIP: I’m Joel

 

KN: they zap his brain

 

CLIP: Got it. I love you. Got it.

 

JA: Could we zap a memory that was already there? Could we go in and erase old memories. That was Karim’s question

 

KNL I was just looking to do something conceptually challenging, just kind of fun right ‘

and just out there

 

JA: Joe thought he was crazy

 

JL: I didn’t think the experiment was gonna work and he said, OK, and so he went away

and he did the experiment without telling me, and

 

JA: A couple months later, Nader walks back in the door

 

JL: Walked in the door and he said

 

KN: Like Joe, this is really crazy, but it actually worked

 

JL: It worked

 

JA: Karim says he took a rat, played it the tone

 

KN: Give them the tone and give them a mild shock to the feet

 

JA: So it could form a memory. Tested it just to make sure, and sure enough when it heard the tone, it froze

 

KN: Yeah

 

JA: Which means it had the memory, good. Then he waited. A long time

 

KN: 60 days

 

JA: 60 days?

 

KN: yeah

 

JA: Two months later, he played the rat the tone and as it’s frozen thinking oh no oh no I know what’s about to happen. Right at that moment, while it was remembering, he gave it the drug

 

KN: And then the next day we just put them back into the box and we just gave them

some tones to see how afraid they were of the tones. And the ones that got the drug, they behaved as if the tones, it doesn’t mean that they’re gonna get zapped anymore

 

JA: All of a sudden the rat had been set back to square one. Now it was like [tone] ooh what’s that [shock]. Memory was gone

 

KN: There was no memory

 

RK: No memory at all?

 

JA: No

 

JL: That was the shocking result of the Nadar experiment

 

JA: That’s Jonah again

 

JL: The rat is already terrified of the shock, but if you inject the chemical as the rat is

remembering, what the sound means, the memory disappears. It’s as if the memory had never been there in the first place

 

RK: Really?

 

KN: Yeah. Joe looked at me and he just looked very surprised

 

JA: What exactly did you say to him?

 

JL: You know, holy bleep. Take a look at this because it’s so bleep crazy

 

KN: It took me awhile to really kind of believe that it was all true

 

JA: Plus Joe and others had a concern. Maybe this drug isn’t erasing a memory, maybe it’s just giving the rat brain damage and erasing everything

 

JL: So we designed an experiment that would test the specificity of these effects

 

JA: He wondered, could he pinpoint and extract one single memory of many

 

JA: That’s an interesting question

 

JL: Right

 

KN: The idea was to create a memory network in the rat

 

JA: So in his latest study what he did was he taught the rat to be scared of two tones. Not just one

 

KN: So one’s like a voop. [tone] and the other one is a pip [tone] like repeating sounds of

a pure tone

 

JA: And he teaches the rat to be afraid of both of these tones, each one results in a [shock] Only this time, when he plays the tones 45 days later, he picks just one of them. Maybe for instance this one [tone] to pair with the drug

 

KN: And then the next day you test both, and only the one that was paired with the drug

is affected.

 

JA: So you erased tone one but not tone two

 

KN: Exactly.

 

JA: So do re mi--you can just erase re?

 

KN: That would be the idea

 

JA: Wow. That really is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

 

KN: Well that movie came out about two years after we published the study that really

got all this going

 

JA: Do you think they stole from you?

 

KN: I don’t think they stole, but maybe they were thinking along these lines and they were--

 

JA: They must’ve read it and been like, oh my god.

 

KN: There was a write up in the Science Times and we proposed this would be a treatment for PTSD

 

JL: Post traumatic stress disorder. People who go to war or have been through trauma

 

JA: People haunted by really bad memories

 

JL: They just can’t escape the thoughts and memories. They keep reliving

 

JA: How would that work in a therapy situation though?

 

KN: Suppose you have a holocaust victim who’s lived for 50 years with these memories

and you know you would say, let’s talk about what went on in the camp and today you saw Mary in the line to go to the chambers.

 

JL: You say close your eyes and just imagine

 

KN: Relive it

 

JA: And right as you’re talking about it you swallow a pill?

 

JL: Yeah

 

KN: More or less

 

JL: So in fact we’ve done that

 

RK: They’ve done that?

 

JA: They have. Karim Nader now works at McGill University in Montreal and he has teamed up with a clinical psychologist to try this on people and it seems that when you give this drug as a person is remembering or reliving a traumatic event the memory is eroded somewhat. And the next time they think about it, it’s not quite as painful.

 

KN: One woman. She had been raped as a child by a doctor, and when she told her

mother, her mother said she was making up stories. Apparently she never spoke to anyone about this. And she used to get undressed in the dark in front of her husband.

 

JA: Wow

 

KN: and so she came in to the clinic

 

JA: He said says she took the drug while thinking about the trauma

 

KN: And then a week later

 

JA: She told the story again. And this time it wasn’t nearly as hard

 

KN: She improved dramatically. To the point where she was telling the story on TV

 

JA: On TV? Wow. So she went from telling no one about this, including herself, to being so open that she could tell thousands of people?

 

KN: Yeah. she just felt that the emotional part was no longer overwhelming her

 

JL: Some ethicists say that it’s wrong to mess with memory, but you know that’s what

therapy is too. It’s a process of changing your evaluation of situations, learning new things, storing new thins

 

KN: At one point she said, we’ve given her back herself

 

RK: I--I know that she feels better but there’s something slightly creepy about this

 

JA: Yeah

 

RK: That she feels better because something is now missing in her. Something that troubled her, but she’s been in a way, a part of her has been deleted. Look. I think of myself really, I’m Robert Krulwich and I’m a certain age, but really what I am is I’m a strong of memories

 

JA: Yeah

 

RK: I mean that is as close to a way of describing the real me as I can find. I own those memories and they define me. But you’re saying you can come to me, when I’m already formed, when I’m already there. You can give me a shot and you can fundamentally change me

 

JA: There’s an assumption in what you’re saying which is actually kind of wrong. There really isn’t anything like a real memory. I mean think about it. If you can erase a memory while it’s being created, that’s how we started. And now we learn you can erase a memory while it’s being remember, using the same drug? What that really means is that everytime you are remembering something you’re actually recreating it. That’s the only reason the drug works. And so if you’re recreating it each time, then each time you’re remembering something it’s a brand new memory

 

RK: Well no but I’ve always kind of assumed that underneath all of this remembering, there’ some kind of special absolutely original memory locked in a vault somewhere

 

JA: No. No. that is the crazy implication of this experiment

 

JL: That the act of remembering, on a literal level, it’s an act of creation. Every memory

is rebuilt anew, every time you remember it

 

JA: And not only is it an act of creation, as Jonah says, Karim would say it’s an act of imagination

 

KN: Every time you remember something you’re changing the memory a little bit. We’re

always changing the memory slightly

 

JL: You think you’re remembering something that took -place 30 years ago. Actually

what you’re remember is that memory reinterpreted in the light of today, in the light of now.

 

RK: So does that mean there’s no such thing as a memory for all time that hides in a

secret vault somewhere, that all you’ve got is the most recent recollection of the experience

 

JL: Yes

 

RK: Well then how do I know that any memory is verifiably true?

 

JL: you don’t. You don’t, and one of the ironies of this research is that the more you

remember something in a sense, the less accurate it becomes. The more it becomes about you then the less it becomes about what happened

 

RK: So let’s just do something--imagine a couple in love and it’s their first kiss. He kisses

her and she kisses him back. She remembers the kiss of course and he remembers the kiss of course. As they go through the rest of their romance and the next 36 years together, the kiss will essentially become replaced by two independently rembroidered and increasingly dishonest kisses?

 

JL: Assuming they think about that kiss enough. That’s kind if what the theory implies

 

RK: But certainly there’s gotta be somewhere--between the man and the woman, there’s

got to be some true kiss, or is that kiss just gone?

 

JL: That true kiss vanished the minute their lips separated

 

RK: Huh

 

JL: As soon as reality happens it beings diverging in all our different brains. In a very

synoptic level

 

RK: Here’s where you cue the really sad music

 

JL: They just grow slowly farther and farther apart.

 

RK: well let me do it a different way. Let’s suppose that Joan and Bob kiss and then they

part. It’s a great kiss. And then they never think about it again. I mean it was a great kiss

in the moment but they never think about it again

 

JL: yeah

 

RK: 30 years later, Bob is in a railroad station, Joan comes out of a train, their eyes

meet, Bob sees Joan, sees her eyes and remembers suddenly that kiss.

 

JL: That memory is more honest than if he’d been thinking about the kiss everyday of his

life since

 

RK: Oh. You know, that’s even sadder.

 

JA: You know, but it’s true. That’s what scientists say

 

JL: Absolutely. We had a conference last week and Yadin Dudai was here and he

proposed that the safest memory, the memory that is uncontaminated, is one that exists in a patient with amnesia.

 

YD: What I meant is that there is a sort of a paradox

 

RK: This is Yadin?

 

JA: This is Yadin

 

YD: I’m a professor in Israel

 

JA: Reporter Ann Heppermann tracked him down for us

 

YD: Intuitively you think if you use a memory you know, you know better because you

remember it better. You recall it better, you know the details better and so on and so on, but this is not what science shows. If you have a memory, the more you use it, the more you’re likely to change it. So if you never use your memory it’s secured. So taking it a bit father, the safest memories are the memories which are in the brain of people that cannot remember.

 

JA: OK, well I guess we should go to break now

 

RK: Oh yeah. So we should tell you that Jonah Lehrer is the author of a new book called Proust was a Neuroscientist

 

JA: And Joseph Ledoux from NYU before him, he also wrote a book called the Emotional Brain. And Karim Nader, I don’t think he’s written a book. But he will

 

RK: I’m sure he will

 

JA: And also thanks to our producer Ann Heppermann

 

RK: And if you need more information, you want to hear anything again, one word. Radiolab.org

 

JA: Radiolab will continue in a moment

 

ADS

 

JA: This is Radiolab, I’m Jad Abumrad

 

RK: And I’m Robert Krulwich

 

JA: And today on Radiolab we’re looking at memory and

 

RK: Forgetting

 

JA: Right, forgetting. And we’re looking at how these two processes remembering and forgetting are intertwined. And writer Andrei Codrescu has an idea about this

 

AC: The other day, a friend of mine was explaining how she had to move these pixels

around her computer and had to add 20 megabytes of memory to handle the operation. I had the disquieting thoughts that all this memory she was adding had to come from somewhere. Maybe it was coming from me because I couldn’t remember a thing that day. And then it became blindingly obvious. All of the memory that everybody keeps adding to their computers comes from people. Nobody can remember a damn thing. Every Time somebody adds memory to their machine, thousands of people forget everything they knew. Americans are singularly devoid of memory these days. We don’t remember where we came from, who raised us, when our wars used to be, what happened last year, last month, or even last week. School children remember practically nothing. I take the Greyhound bus every week and I swear half the people on their don’t know where they got on or where they’re supposed to get off.

 

AC: the explanation is so simple. Computer companies are stealing human memory to

stuff their hard drives. Greyhound I believe has some kind of contract with IBM to steal the memory of everyone riding the bus. They’re probably connected by a cable or something. Every hundred miles, poof. Another 500 megabytes gets sucked out of the passengers’ brains. The computer’s thirst for memory is bottomless. The more they suck the more they need. Eventually we’ll all be walking around with a glazed look in our eyes, trying to figure out who it is we live with. And then we will forget our names and addresses and we’ll just be milling around trying to remember them. The only thing visible about us will be these cables sticking out of our behinds, feeding the scraps of our memory to computer centrals somewhere in oblivion, USA.

 

AC: I think it’s time for all these memory sucking companies to start some kind of system to feed and shelter us when we forget how to eat, walk, and sleep.

 

JA: Andrei Codrescu, with an essay from the book 101 Damnations. And he actually has a new book of short essays about New Orleans, called New Orleans, Mon Amour. Anyways, Robert

 

RK: Yes

 

JA: Mon Amour. Andrei, he’s trying to make a point about you know historical amnesia in America and whatever. But what if we were to take what he’s saying literally. And explore it. Like we know you can subtract a memory, we did that earlier. But what if you could add a memory. Like actually add a memory in, back into a brain that wasn’t there before

 

RK: what do you mean by add memory?

 

JA: Implant a false memory

 

RK: Ooh.

 

EL: Count back--OK. 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. My name is Elizabeth Loftus, I’m on the faculty at the University of California Irvine

 

JA: Depending on who you talk to, Elizabeth Loftus is either a hero or Dr. Evil. Her research which goes back more that two decades has completely changed how we think about memory

 

EL: Well for many--

 

JA: I spoke with her recently about it

 

EL: For many years, I and other psychologists were doing experiments in which we distorted the memories of events which people had actually experienced. So we would take somebody who’d seen a simulated auto accident or a simulated crime and we would alter the details in their memory report. We’d make people believe that they saw a car go through a stop sign instead of a yield sign. And we found it was not that hard to alter people’s memories of these previously experienced events. But more recently we’re gone even further and shown that you can plant entirely false memories into the minds of people. Memories for things that didn’t happen

 

JA: Like what?

 

EL: Well, we planted a memory that when you were about 5 or 6 years old you were lost for an extended period of time in a shopping mall

 

CLIP: Mom?

 

EL: you were frightened, you were crying. And ultimately you were rescued

 

CLIP: Are you lost?

 

EL: By an elderly person

 

CLIP: Find your mother

 

EL: And reunited with the family

 

CLIP: Mommy. There you are

 

JA: And how did you implant that memory?

 

EL: We told them that we had talked to their parents and that we had learned some things that happened to them when they were a child

 

JA: They basically interview the subjects about their past. They’d say, hey do you remember that time you were on the bike and you fell?

 

RK: Which they were making up

 

JA: No no they would start with a true story, they would start with a true story. And they would say, hey do you remember that time, which was true, remember that other time, which was true. And that other time which was true. And somewhere in the middle of all those true stories, they would slip in the lie

 

EL: The false made up story about being lost and frightened and crying and in that particular study we found that about a quarter of our subjects fell sway to the suggestion. They had adopted it as their own memory

 

JA: A quarter of her subjects, when she checked with them later, no had in their head a memory of being lost and then found in the mall that never happened.

 

RK: I would have been the number one guy in that quarter

 

EL: What is happening in that situation is people take their image of an actually shopping

center

 

CLIP: [background noise]

 

EL: Actual family remembers and they construct an experience

 

CLIP: There you are

 

EL: Out of these bits and pieces. Investigators in this field have made people believe that they had accidents at family weddings or that they were a victim of a vicious animal attack or that they nearly drowned and had to be rescued by a lifeguard. Even with these pretty traumatic ideas you can make people believe that it happened to them

 

RK: Actually, we had this very same experience. When I was in law school, we had this professor. He was a professor of property and he was doing a lecture. Adn in the middle of the lecture, and this was not you know, in anyway we were not prepared for this. All of a sudden a guy zips into the class, into the very front of the class and grabs something from the professor and runs out

 

JA: Just stole it?

 

RK: Stole it. I don’t even remember what it was, but it happened so suddenly. And Professor Bergen said, oh my god, did any of you see the curly haired guy that just went--he just sort of threw it in. The curly haired guy. But it turned out that what he called the curly haired guy, when the man came back later to present himself, was not a curly haired guy at all. He was a straight haired guy.

 

JA: So the whole thing was staged?

 

RK: yeah we were all eyewitnesses and we all had been coached inadvertently to see something that wasn't’t true. And we all saw it.

 

JA: What I find interesting though is why that kind of suggestion works so well on memory. And Karim Nader, the guy we heard from earlier, scientist, he puts it this way. Suppose you witness a crime and the police ask you some questions later and they say, did you see a red camaro leave the scene?

 

KN: And you’re thinking about it going yeah no, no red camaro

 

JA: No, didn’t seen one. But then maybe the policeman asks you again, are you sure you didn’t see one. And suddenly you’re like, well.

 

KN: I think maybe there was, maybe I forgot

 

JA: You start to question it because as he puts it, when you are remembering something, the memory is unstable

 

KN: the memory comes back up to this unstable state.

 

JA: It’s being rebuilt, recreated. And in that moment, someone, without even meaning to, can slide something new in

 

KN: And as the memory gets restored, with the image of the red camaro, the next day

when the judge asks you, was there somebody with--was there a red camaro there, from your perspective it’s a real memory

 

JA: Yeah but what’s so fascinating to me about that phenomenon, assuming it’s true

 

KN: Yeah

 

JA: Is that the red camaro that is now in your head

 

KN: Yeah.

 

JA: Is a vivid, technicolor, red camaro you can see the light bounce off the hood. It’s just

feels real, you can taste the air

 

KN: It’s amazing how detailed these things can be.

 

JA: Which is why when someone contradicts your memory and says, that didn’t happen that way, you’re like, yeah it did screw you

 

RK: Well it feels like it’s also a robbery. They’re taking it from you.

 

JA: And in fact this got Elizabeth Loftus in a lot of trouble. Back in the mid 80s there were a lot of people--I don’t know if you remember this, coming forward with repressed memories like, I was abused by a Satanistic cult and performed rituals and whatever, all that stuff.

 

RK: Oh right I remember that

 

JA: We now know that a lot of those memories were imagined. And she says at the time she was one of the only people to raise her hand and say, um excuse me. And it got her in a lot of trouble

 

EL: I’ve never really seen anything like the wrath of hostility when I began to write

articles and publish on this subject, it was pretty amazing the vitriol

 

JA: What kind of things would they do or say?

 

EL: Oh they you know, my life was threatened, arm guards would have to be hired at

universities where I was being asked to speak. I had the bomb squad at my house on one occasion. One day I was taking an airplane flight and when the woman sitting in the seat next to me learned who I was, she started to swat me with her newspaper. And it was kinda hard to extract myself from her. Because you know, airplanes are crowded places. You know the fact of the matter is memory is malleable and we might as well face the truth

 

RK: Well now this isn’t to say that you could have a repressed memory and it might--it might just be true. I mean all repressed memories are false

 

JA: sure sure

 

RK: And in that regard, this next story you’re gonna hear. I don’t wanna tell you much about it. I’ll just tell you it’s a painter

 

JA: And it’s produced by Nata Perang

 

NP: The first thing you notice in Joe Ando’s studio si horses. A big milky one straight ahead, sepia ones to the left and right, staring at you like they don’t care about you, but they don’t mind you either. They’re really like dreams of horses

 

JA: I never paint horses that are being manipulated with a bridle or anything. They’re

mostly just hanging out. It comforts me to have paintings of horses around

 

NP: Over the past ten years the horses have multiplied, and Joe doesn’t even know why he keeps painting them

 

JA: I guess it’s kind of like--I just kinda tune it in or something like you’re tuning your

guitar, you know, ding ding ding into you know the two strings resonate you know, and you know it’s in tune.

 

NP: In a Manhattan studio, surrounded by stacks of these animals, you start forgetting you’re in Chelsea. Maybe you’re in a stable instead. Sometimes even the jessing starts to smell like mulch and hay. When Joe got here in the mid 80s, no galleries were offering solo or group shows, and like all the other hundreds of artists in New York, he was struggling

 

JA: I had been in New York for about six years and nothing was happening. And I was

beginning to think nothing was gonna happen. And I was you know had a kid and I was married and so I stopped painting for a few months, which is a long time for me. And I missed it. So I started painting again for myself. You know after the dishes were done and all my domestic chores were fulfilled. I’d sit down at the dining table and paint

 

NP: And what showed up on these canvases were pastures, lush and open. The kind of pastures you’d see on a postcard from somewhere in Wyoming, or in this case, Tulsa Oklahoma. Where Joe grew up.

 

JA: Well I can show you some of my paintings. Me and my buddies we’d park out here

and we’d get high in the evening, like this is a summer evening, you know.

 

NP: Joe runs his hand through the air in front of a massive painting, leaning against the wall. It’s of a field at dusk

 

NP: Beautiful

 

NP: It’s like he’s showing me property

 

JA: And we would trip and we would contemplate the universe, you know. Like, what do

you think’s the stars? What’s behind them.

 

NP: It’s one of those fields with thick grass that’s matted where people might have laid down.

 

JA: You know

 

NP: There’s some trees to lean against, separating the grass and the road

 

JA: Our high school sat on Route 66, right on the edge of Tulsa, and you know, you pull

out of school at lunch time and you take a left and you could drive down Route 66 into the heart of Tulsa. And you could take a right and you could go out to--there’s farmland. You know, this was in the early 70s and we of course would take a ride.

 

NP: So when Joe stopped trying to paint for anyone else, he drifted backwards into his adolescence. All those breezy right turns out of the school parking lot

 

JA: And ultimately, this is what people lined up for

 

NP: Joe had one show then another one. Studio visits from private collectors. Then calls from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Whitney. Even sitcom art directors. All the while he kept on painting his deserted landscapes, then, as he describes it.

 

JA: About ten years ago, horses started showing up in my repertoire so to speak

 

NP: The pastures weren’t empty anymore. They started to draw mares and foals to themselves. Some in the far distance, some so close that they’re out of focus

 

JA: And then, about a year ago, I was--I started painting girls

 

NP: Joe’s first attempt at the human form. The girls are all on their own canvases. They’re undressed, stepping out of a darkened space. Some of them look like they’re about to say something.

 

JA: And I’m just following my gut, I’m painting these pictures and I don’t really know why.

And you know after a few months I was sitting back and I was sort of reflecting. I was looking at all of these things, and I noticed that they all looked the same. They all looked like the same girl.

 

NP: Looking over all the paintings in the studio, they clearly are the same girl. But in a dozen different angles. She has the look of a 16 year old in 1972.

 

JA: Like my first love kind of thing

 

NP: Her name was Kay

 

JA: It was like my first soulmate like the first--you know how the first time you feel like

you’re not alone

 

NP: She’s beautiful. Oval face, almond eyes that look right into you.

 

JA: and then I remembered this moment with her and me and the horse, in the car

 

NP: Joe realized he’d been painting a memory. The fragments of one afternoon 30 years earlier. Each ingredient emerging slowly

 

JA: We were parked in the backseat of my nova, 67 nova in this pasture and we were in

the backseat and a horse looked in the window. It was just like this moment where it was like, [explosion sound] you know this horse was there and she’s there and, and, uh. I was in love I had a beautiful naked girl there with me in the backseat of my car, you know. It just didn’t get any better. I was skipping out of school so I wouldn’t have to be in class. You know, I was on east street. I probably had five dollars in my pocket, you know. Enough gas to get some, I had some cigarettes. I don’t know.

 

NP: Why did you break up?

 

JA: [laughs] I think I cheated on her. I think that’s why

 

NP: No.

 

JA: I think that’s what happened. I went to the lake I did something I shouldn’t have.

Right--you know in front of somebody she knew. She moved away to Minnesota for some reason and she called me one day and we, we went to--went out dancing and we drank beer and danced and I took her home to the place she was staying. She was staying with some friends in this old house behind an appliance store. And I dropped her off and she looked at me like this and says, aren’t you coming in? And I says, no I have to go see somebody else, I forget her name.

 

NP: You had a new girlfriend?

 

JA: New girlfriend. And she lit a cigarette and slammed the door and she died in a fire

that night. I got a call the next morning.

 

NP: A car door slams. A girl turns and looks over her shoulder at a guy she won’t be seducing that night. A fragment of a moment frozen in time

 

JA: And I mean the funny thing is she was so spirited, if anybody was gonna come back

and haunt me she would

 

NP: How old were you?

 

JA: Probably like 21

 

NP: How old was she?

 

JA: She was probably 19

 

NP: That day in the car with his girl and the horse looking in, Joe thinks the memory of that one afternoon in Tulsa might be some sort of post traumatic pleasure syndrome. An echo that bounced off Jupiter and caught up with him again

 

JA: And then again, they’re just paintings too. They’re just color. They’re just excuses for

me to make another painting.

 

NP: There’s something alluring about Joe Ando’s paintings. They draw you in. maybe that’s why people pay big money for them. But they only thing that anyone who wasn’t there in the field with Joe, Kay, and the horse can do is look from the outside into an impenetrable past that’s finished. That memory, that story, is self sustaining and whole, looping endlessly in an alternate universe

 

JA: That’s the reason I don’t title these. I don’t put--there’s no, there’s no ending, there’s

no beginning. It’s just every day I stir it up again.

 

RK: Joe Ando has a new memoir, it’s called Jubilee City and it’s published by William Marrow.

 

JA: We will continue in a moment.

 

ADS

 

JA: Ready?

 

RK: Mhm

 

JA: this is Radiolab, I’m Jad Abumrad

 

RK: And I’m Robert Krulwich and on this show we’ve been talking about

 

JA: Memory

 

RK: Remembering and forgetting, yeah. And this next story is about the most drastic version of this particular back and forth that I can think of. It just can’t get any worse than this. This is a story of a man named Clive Wearing. It was told to me by the famous neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks

 

RK: First of all, who was Clive Wearing when he was well

 

OS: He was a gifted musician and musicologist who was really a pioneer in Renaissance

music. Especially the music of Olandus Lassis

 

DW: And he had a group called the London Lassis Ensemble

 

RK: This is Deborah, Clive’s wife

 

DW: And in every concert, his signature tune was music of Dedonham, music the gift of

god

 

RK: Boy, music the gift of god, that’s sort of interesting

 

DW: Exactly

 

RK: And then what happened?

 

OS: Then rather suddenly in March of 85, he became ill

 

RK: It began he says with just a headache

 

DW: And he often had headaches because he often overworked so it was nothing out of

the ordinary

 

RK: But it didn’t go away

 

DW: We called the doctor and the local doctors pronounced that it was a very bad flu

bug

 

OS: The nature of the illness was not clear, no it’s gravity

 

DW: Yes, on the, whoo. Fifth day of the headache he was suddenly out of it

 

RK: Suddenly, he couldn’t remember things

 

DW: He didn’t know my name, didn’t know his home address

 

OS: When the diagnosis was made of a herpes encephalitis, the damage had been done

 

RK: He was left, says Oliver, with the most severe amnesia ever documented

 

OS: This was a man who at least when things were very severe, would forget something

in the blink of an eyelid

 

RK: It’s very hard to imagine what this must have been like. His wife Deborah wrote about it though in a book of her own and she says his ability to perceive what he saw and heard was unimpaired. But he didn’t seem able to retain any impression of anything for more than a blink. The view before the blink, utterly forgotten. Each blink, each glance away and back brought him an entirely new view

 

DW: Every moment is his first waking moment

CLIP: It’s a long time since I’ve seen anything. My eyes are open today for the first time

 

DW: There is no other moment for clive, except this one

 

CW: I can’t remember now what was going on this morning or why I was here. I’ve never seen anything

 

RK: This was Clive from a documentary filmed a year after he got sick

 

CLIP: There is no memory for me at all, anything at all. I don’t know what the hell is going on.

 

RK: You can hear his wife Deborah, trying for the umpteenth time to explain to him what happened

 

CLIP: I’ve never seen anyone at all. This is one of the things that’s wrong with you--

 

RK: All he can feel is that he’s not there

 

CLIP: --recognize

 

RK: That he’s been nowhere

 

CLIP: I’ve been blind the whole time, I’ve been dead the whole time. No sense of touch. [unintelligible] The brain hasn’t been able to--Not as far as I’m concerned. Conscious actually means that the person involved is actually connected with it. This hasn’t happen. You’re not being able to store--well everything that you experience has been lost, it’s been--it’s not registering. That’s right, it’s not making any impact, it’s not leaving a trace or an imprint on the brain. So it happens and then it fades.

 

OS: Proust has a wonderful description of waking up from deep sleep in a hotel on a

strange room and perhaps feeling confused or not knowing where you are or what’s around you or not even knowing who you are. He says that memory comes like a rope let down from heaven to draw one out of the abyss of unbeing. No such rope is available for Clive.

 

RK: but the staff at the hospital tried to help

 

DW: We put a diary by his bed and we initially wrote in it, you are in St. Mary’s hospital

Paddington. It is such a such. And then we encouraged Clive to write things down.

 

OS: So he starts to keep a journal. He is extremely intent on trying to document his

state. He is very very precise

 

DW: He would look at his watch to see what time was this momentous event occuring or

first consciousness. So he would write down, 10:06, awake first time. And then have the same sensation and put 10:07, awake first time, truly awake first time. Ignore the last entry. Now I’m awake. This is the first real awakeness. And so the diaries are line by line a succession of astonished awakenings

 

CLIP: People’s interesting in th diaries are rubbish, what does that mean? Did you write that?

 

CLIP: I have no consciousness at all until now, the first time.

 

CLIP:  But it’s, is it your handwriting.

 

CLIP: Yes it is, but I know nothing about it at all.

 

CLIP:  So how do you think it got there?

 

CLIP: I did it. I presume the doctor did it.

 

CLIP: But you must be--no I haven’t. I haven’t seen the book at all until now. No all I’m saying is--no that’s means I haven’t seen it, I have no knowledge of it at all. That’s all. There’s no knowledge of that book. It’s entirely new to me.

 

CLIP: But you’ve put--who would put that?

 

CLIP: I don’t know but no, no--or heaven's sake you should [unintelligible] the bloody thing.

 

RK: It seems about as horrible as anything I could imagine

 

OS: Yeah. Clive gets the sense of deep horror many many times a day

 

CLIP: Same as death, no difference between day and night, no thoughts at all

 

OS: No one quite knows what to do with someone with amnesia

 

CLIP: I’ve never seen any human being since I’ve been out. I don’t remember sitting down on this chair for example

 

OS: They’re not mad, they’re not retarded

 

CLIP: It’s precisely like death

 

RK: Clive has now suffered with this total amnesia for more than 20 years

 

CLIP: Can you imagine having one night 20 years long with no dream? That’s what it’s been like. Just like death. In that sense it’s been totally painless

 

RK: and yet somehow, some things have sustained. The love he has for his wife Deborah remained part of him. But even though he doesn’t remember, for example, his children’s names, he doesn’t remember anything about his immediate past or even his relatively distant past. When Deborah walks into the hospital room and he sees her, what happened?

 

OS: He gasps

 

CLIP: Darling, oh--

 

OS: With relief and excitement and they hug and he kisses her with enormous passion.

He is suddenly being rescued from the abyss. There is suddenly something and someone familiar

 

CLIP: Have I not seen you at all until now? Haven’t I seen anyone  at all until now?

 

RK: She goes home and the phone is ringing. She’s just visited him.

 

OS: Yeah and she may find--she might find twenty calls on the message machine

 

RK: From a man who doesn't know she’s been there

 

CLIP: Hi Darling, Clive here. It’s ten to seven. I don’t know anyone in this place, I know nothing about this case at all, I’d love to speak to you please. Can you come and see me please as soon as you possibly can? I don’t care about anyone else in the world but you please, please come. Love you

 

RK: 14 minutes later

 

CLIP: This is Clive here. I don’t want to speak to anyone else, I only want to speak to you Darling, can you come and see me please? I haven’t seen you yet and I want to. Please come Darling. Bye bye.

 

RK: 11 minutes later

 

CLIP: This is Clive here. I have no idea what’s been going on. Is there any way you can get to me tonight? Please do come. I want to see you please. Please come, please come darling. It’s clive here. I don’t care about anyone else. This is Clive here, in case you don’t--

 

OS: Now he does not remember her in every way. He may fail to recognize her if she

jsut passes, he cannot describe her. He may forget her name, but he does not forget her embrace, her warmth, her love, her kisses, her caring for him.

 

RK: So the question is, what happened here that he could forget everything it seems, but not her. When I asked Oliver, he referred to an experiment, a particular experiment

 

OS: Well this was a famous or infamous experiment done by Clapored, who was a

neurologist, a French neurologist in the beginning--and this was done at the beginning of the 20th century.

 

SJ: And there was this famous patient who basically had a version of the, of the memory

problem that was in the film memento

 

RK: That’s science writer Steven Johnson

 

SJ: Basically she couldn’t remember anything longer than kind of five or ten minutes, it

would just disappear. And every day she would go see her doctor and he would greet her and she’d say hello and introduce herself and he’d say, well we see eachother everyday, but she wouldn’t remember. And then one day--this is kind of a funny story because it’s not exactly what you want your doctor doing. One day what he did was, he concealed, as he was shaking her hand, he concealed a little thumbtack in his palm. And reached and shook her hand and pricked her hand. And she you know, recoiled and said, well you’re a terrible doctor. And then the next day

 

RK: When she came back again and didn’t know who he was

 

SJ: Didn’t recognize him at all as usual and said hello and introduced herself and then

he reached out to shake her hand and she paused. And she had this instinctive kind of feeling like there was some kind of threat here. If she had no memory, if she couldn’t remember who this guy was, how could she's somehow remember this, this threat. The threat posed by the pinprick in the palm

 

RK: Well this is Oliver’s notion

 

OS: I think memories of pain and joy, I think are sort of primordial

 

RK: Deep down in the oldest parts of our brains, Oliver thinks, there may be a place for the memories that matter the most

 

OS: And I like the idea of a sort of subcortical safe vault

 

RK: For Clive, protected in the vault out of reach from his amnesia was love for his wife and one thing more

 

DW: Yeah I’d taken him off the ward to get some peace because he was hypersensitive

to noise. And the most peaceful place happened to be the chapel. And we picked up an old hymn book. And for want of anything better to do and because Clive talked jumble most of the time at that stage, I began to sing.

 

RK: And all of a sudden like it was the most natural thing in the world

 

DW: He joined in

 

CLIP: [singing]

 

DW: He could sing. I was amazed he could still read music and sing

 

RK: Was it a tentative sort of stumbling or--

 

DW: No no, just like falling off a log

 

RK: Full voice, strong, everything?

 

DW: Yeah. And I was so thrilled

 

RK: Did you want to sing another?

 

DW: Oh you bet

 

RK: And another

 

DW: Absolutely

 

RK: and if he could do that, she wondered, well what else could he do?

 

DW: We even brought is choir in

 

RK: the one he used to conduct in London

 

DW: To the hospital chapel. I had a hunch that if we stood Clive in front of them with a

piece of music, he would be able to conduct. And it happened, just as I’d hoped. His singers were flabbergasted. There was their old conductor bringing them in completely and utterly himself

 

RK: And almost the instant it was over. It was over. He had no memory of what he’d just done. In fact, later on she showed him a tape of that very performance

 

CLIP: What would you say if I told you you conducted the Lassis ensemble this week?

 

CLIP: [laughs] That’s hilarious

 

CLIP: I thought you’d say that

 

CLIP: That’s absolutely hysterical. I don’t know.

 

CLIP: Do you want me to prove it to you? [singing]

 

CLIP: This is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen

 

RK: On the screen right in front of him, there he is on the pedestal, baton in hand, and he’s conducting

 

OS: He’s fully in the music, fully himself. So music in a way becomes this Prostian rope

from heaven, which will recall him to himself

 

RK: And no one really knows why

 

CLIP: I remember that now

 

RK: What music does that makes this possible. Not just in Clive but many others. Maybe it’s something about music itself, that it’s so richly organized, that every time you’re in a  song you can feel what has been and what’s about to be. Maybe Clive was just carried along in the architecture of music

 

DW: But when the music stops, he falls out of time. Music gives him a piece of

time in which to exist

 

RK: Out of time, out of memory, out of himself. There’s two things left. There’s love and there’s the joy of music. Everything else is gone. But for some reason, those stay.

 

RK: Thanks to Deborah Wearing, she’s written a book about Clive called Forever Today, a Memoir of Love and Amnesia. Thanks also once again to Oliver Sacks who’s included a piece about Clive in his new book on music and memory called Musicophilia. And thanks to Uden associates, producers of the 1986 Jonathan Miller Documentary, Equinox, Prisoner of Consciousness.

 

JA: That’s our show for today. And never fear if you didn’t absorb anything we just said because you can always go to our website, radiolab.org we will give you links there to any of the books you just mentioned. I think--

 

RK: Also subscribe to the podcast, right?

 

JA: Yes. Radiolab.org

 

RK: Or go to iTunes