Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Caterpillar Soup

Not long ago, I heard a story on NPR’s Morning Edition about a new study which found that moths and butterflies can remember some of what they learned as caterpillars, even after the process of metamorphosis has turned their bodies into a sort of soup before reconstituting them as flying creatures.

Since I’ve reached an age at which I sometimes feel as if my brains are turning into soup (though I have grave doubts that I am in the process of metamorphizing into anything with wings), I find this discovery fascinating.

I’m fully aware that this study was not concerned with say, a moth remembering where she left her car keys when she was still earthbound, but it started me thinking once again about memory; in particular about how little control we have over whatever it is we refer to by that term. I can’t control my memory in the sense that I can’t necessarily remember something when I want to, nor can I make myself forget a memory I’d be happier without.

My nonagenarian mother has some of the memory loss associated with her age; she complains about her short-term memory in particular, but I’m aware of changes in her long-term memory as well. In fact, even before hearing the NPR piece, I might have described my mother’s memory bank as a sort of soup. You never know what the next ladleful will contain (though often it’s the very same stuff she just served you.)

Asked a question about some era or event in our shared family history, she might start out on what seems to be a good path to the desired information, but within a sentence or two, she seems to change course; other memory bits have sidled into the mix and in the end my question is left unanswered. Happily though, because of her short-term memory loss, she is unaware of not having reached the goal I had in mind, so I’m the only one disappointed.

So where, exactly, has a lost memory gone when we can’t dredge it up? Yes, yes, I know, memories aren’t stored as discrete little bundles. Instead, it seems they are chemical and/or electrical somethings; non-entities that occasionally appear to us as if they were entities, in response to some stimulus. We don’t actually lose the information; we lose the ability to provide the stimulus that would retrieve it.

If one considers the daily lives of most elderly people, it’s easy to see how, as they lose the stimuli that once elicited memories (a mate, siblings, friends, work), the memories become more difficult to retrieve. It’s all in there, somewhere, but less and less easy to get at. I see this coming down the road in my own life eventually and I don't like it.

Meanwhile, does a moth ever wonder what it was before that dimly-remembered, and most disorienting, soup experience?

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