Studying a Person on Autopilot with No Resistance

Excerpt from the book ” Moonwalking with Einstein”, Joeseph Forer

Here the writer describing a man, EP, who lost both of his Hippocampus’ from a viral brain infection. He has zero short-term memory and only some very old long term memories remain. He is kind and affable but remembers nothing the minute he turns away.  

He doesn’t learn anything new as he literally cannot assimilate new experiences or revelations into his view of reality.  Because he cannot remember he does not employ his fight of flight mechanism or feel intense fear or emotions, making him an ideal and open candidate to study.

He has lost his ability to consciously remember (declarative memory) but can still function with his unconscious Non-declarative memories that are habitual, automatic and hard-wired.  These memories do not pass through the Limbic System buffer, like conscious memory does.  

Our world view, or set of fundamental beliefs, filters experinces through our emotional center first, and depending on our ability to properly emotionally sort out the experience (Discernment and Awareness), we file the memory accurately or not.  

What parallels might we draw from a person who anatomically cannot process memory properly and those of us who choose not to?  He never knows “why”.

“I’m curious to see EP’s unconscious, non-declarative memory at work, so I ask him if he’s interested in taking me on a walk around his neighborhood. 

He says, “Not really,” so I wait and ask him again a couple minutes later. 

This time he agrees. We walk out the front door into the high afternoon sun and turn right—his decision, not mine. 

I ask EP why we’re not turning to the left instead.

I’d just rather not go that way. 

“This is just the way I go. I don’t know why,” he says.

If I asked him to draw a map of the route he takes at least three times a day, he’d never be able to do it. 

He doesn’t even know his own address, or (almost as improbably for someone from San Diego) which way the ocean is. 

But after so many years of taking the same walk, the journey has etched itself on his unconscious. 

His wife, Beverly, now lets him go out alone, even though a single wrong turn would leave him completely lost. 

Sometimes he comes back from his walks with objects he’s picked up along the way: a stack of round stones, a puppy, somebody’s wallet. 

He can never explain how they came into his possession.

“Our neighbors love him because he’ll come up to them and just start talking to them,” Beverly tells me. 

Even though he thinks he’s meeting them for the first time, he’s learned through force of habit that these are people he should feel comfortable with, and he interprets those unconscious feelings of comfort as a good reason to stop and say hello.

That EP has learned to like his neighbors without ever learning who they are points to how many of our basic day-to-day actions are guided by implicit values and judgments, independent of declarative memory. 

I wonder what other things EP has learned through force of habit. 

What other non-declarative memories have continued to shape him over the decade and a half since he lost his declarative memory? 

Surely, he must still have desires and fears, emotions, and cravings—even if his conscious recollection of those feelings is so fleeting that he cannot recognize them for long enough to verbalize them.

I thought of my own self fifteen years ago, and how much I’ve changed in the same period. 

The me who exists today and the me who existed then, if put side by side, would look more than vaguely similar. 

But we are a completely different collection of molecules, with different hairlines and waistlines, and, it sometimes seems, little in common besides our names. 

What binds that me to this me, and allows me to maintain the illusion that there is continuity from moment to moment and year to year, is some relatively stable but gradually evolving thing at the nucleus of my being. 

Call it a soul, or a self, or an emergent by-product of a neural network, but whatever you want to call it, that element of continuity is entirely dependent on memory.

But even if we are at the mercy of our memories in establishing our identities, it is clear that EP is much more than just a soulless golem. 

In spite of everything he’s lost, there is still a person there, and a personality—a charming personality, in fact—with a unique perspective on the world. 

Even if a virus wiped clean his memories, it didn’t completely wipe clean his personhood. 

It just left a hollow, static self that can never grow and can never change.”

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