I was reading Boing Boing last weekend and a particular piece caught my interest. It featured a cheat sheet written for a woman who woke up in the hospital with anterograde amnesia—a form of memory loss where the sufferer finds themselves unable to make new memories—like the main character in Chris Nolan’s brilliant neo-noir, Memento.
The cheat sheet itself is both humorous and sad— undoubtedly written out of a combination of sympathy and frustration. Patients with anterograde amnesia find themselves repeating the same questions and making the same statements over and over. The last section of the cheat sheet is a amusing testament to this:
Yeah bro, I don’t know what your fascination with the floors is, but you’ve said that like 800 times.
This got me thinking. A hospital room has got to be the worst place for an amnesiac to be.
Depending on your condition, you’re not only immobile but faced with the same boring surroundings all day*. A blank space for your new, blank mind. Without getting into debates about free will and determinism (the comments in the BoingBoing article do plenty), it’s no surprise to hear about somebody responding the same way to a specific stimulus over and over. For this reason, anterograde amnesiacs present a fascinating case in which to study just how predictable we really are.
I know for certain that I am a slave to scripted responses to incoming stimuli. As today’s comic suggests, there’s probably little difference between me when I’m really bored, and and somebody suffering from anterograde amnesia. Nadir can attest to the fact that for a long time, when horror actor Robert Englund came up in conversation, I would tell the exact same story about how my father once met him on a flight. For whatever reason, I would forget that I had already told the story, and it quickly became a bit of an inside joke amongst my friends. It got so bad that they would literally say, “Watch this” and mention Englund to trigger the story. I was the Pavlov’s Dog of party tricks until I finally stopped falling for it.
Like myself and my banal story, those suffering from anterograde amnesia aren’t necessarily doomed to repetition ad nauseum. Most of the time, the memory loss is temporary, and across the board, anterograde amnesia only affects explicit (or declarative) memory. A while back I wrote about some cryptologists who took advantage of our implicit memory to store a password in the brain. Through conditioning and muscle memory, patients have been shown to learn new tasks without even remembering learning them. They can even dream about their experiences, as demonstrated by psychiatrist and sleep scientist Robert Stickgold in the video below.
The film Memento touches upon conditioning several times, most notably during the story of Sammy Jankis, a supposed amnesiac who was tested using electrified objects—no doubt inspired by an experiment carried out by neurologist Édouard Claparède, who was treating a woman with a similar disorder. Claparède hid a pin in his hand when greeting his patient, pricking her. The next time they met, she had no memory of ever meeting Claparède, yet hesitated to shake his hand—her body acting reflexively to an expected threat. In the movie, the testers conclude that Jankis had been faking his condition when he failed to respond to the training.
Whether or not it was conditioning or mere social self-awareness that made me cease my own repetitive storytelling, I now have a plaster face cast of Robert Englund hanging in my closet to commemorate graduating from predictability. Stimulus. Response.
UPDATE: Wanted to add a story by writer Meehan Crist about her mother, who suffered from a very particular form of memory loss—one that you might be familiar with on a personal, yet more benign level. Ever walk into a room and forget why? Turns out, according to Notre Dame University, it’s because your brain treats the doorway as an “event boundary” and the memory of why you entered the room is compartmentalized in the memories associated with the room you just came from. But after Crist’s mother suffered from an ice skating injury, she found that her brain would drop everything and forget whenever she walked through a doorway. Or stopped at a stoplight. Every time. Take a look.
PAX East is next week! I will be attending, as is most of the Strip Search cast. So expect some shenanigans. I will be bringing trinkets and prizes to hand out to people who cosplay as me, or show up wearing Team Maki swag. I’d also be happy to draw you a sketch or hold your hand for an uncomfortably long time. Stuff like that.
Without further ado, here is episode 5! Earlier in the week, we witnessed the unfortunate elimination of an audience favorite. Some took it harder than others (SPOILERS if you haven’t seen Episode 4!)
*Hospitals now often employ decorative wallpapers and gowns with patterns on them in order to better stimulate the mind.