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I Just Lost my Memory!

("WHAT? You lost your mind?... But, wait... you're writing this blog post...")

Hold it! Just a minute before you get too carried away, ... I should have been more specific. I did lose my memory, just a certain kind of memory. As I figure it, there are three types of memory. First, there is genetic memory that every living organism has: the stuff in our genes that tells us what our little reproductive cells will turn us into—in our case, humans. That memory gives us our bodies, what we look like and how we think and behave. Each of us is slightly different from one another; so each of us has a unique genetic memory. Since I'm still here (pinch, pinch), I didn't lose that type of memory.

Second, there is cognitive memory, which all living things have to a degree depending on their physiological complexity—especially depending on how the cells of their bodies communicate, such as nerves and brains. With more complex nervous systems, such as other mammals including us, we are able to not only instinctually do what our genes tell us to do but also to learn and remember behavior from our environmental encounters in daily existence—with the physical forces of nature as well as all the other living beings that surround us, since all are part of our environment. So, learning and remembering is a big deal—and we all vary on those skills.

Now, did I lose some of that memory? Well, yeah, in a way, since there's that third type of memory: cultural memory. But I didn't lose all of that since I still can type on this keyboard, know how to drive a car, remember to put clothes on each day, etc. You see, the advantage that humans have over nearly all other animals (some mammals and birds have it also as far as we know, but not to the degree we do) is that we have culture. That is, the ability to pass learning on from one generation to another. That way we get beyond depending solely on genetics for our behavior and can pass on what we learned so everyone in our species doesn't have to learn everything by trial and error again and again. And the big trick humans have in this over all other animals is that we can record our memories so we don't have to verbally communicate those: We can chip them in stone, imprint in clay tablets, write on paper, or record digitally on media. Pretty cool, huh? Especially, the digital form.

But there's a problem with that trick. Sometimes one king or emporer, for example, destroys the previous ruler's records, be they on stone statues or clay tablets, as so often historically happened in Egypt, the Middle East, and the Far East. Bummer. And, paper was a great invention too, but even more susceptible to destruction: not so much from book-burning, though that did happen too, but from natural causes of deterioration due to mold and worms as well as fire, earthquakes, etc. Bummer on that as well. Then there are digital media, seemingly indestructible and handy as well. Tons of info on a little tape, or disk, or chip. The perfect cultural memory, right?

Right... until it isn't. That form of memory is still made up of physical elements, and everything physical—just like the stone, clay, and paper—can, and does, deteriorate. Like my solid-state disk drive recently did on my computer this September. And that's the memory I lost.

Agh! I can remember it like yesterday: I closed the laptop lid to put it in sleep mode after working that afternoon, set about making and eating dinner, then calmly opened the lid, expecting the screen to pop up where I left off. But no, "Computer storage device malfunction" was the message. Then another screen, "Error Code: Register Error. Restarting." Restarting sounded good, so I was a bit optimistic. Another screen: “BIOS Choices;” no restart. I pressed the suggested ESC to escape. Oh, oh: "Restarting" again. And so it went, around and around, until I finally got it shut off by desperately flailing on the power button. Everyone's computer nightmare: My memory's gone!

And it was—the whole hard drive. Years of memory. The repair shop couldn't retrieve it and installed a new drive: a blank brain. After I calmed down over the ensuing five days it took to determine it couldn't be retrieved, I rummaged around for three more days in various storage devices where I had transferred copies of parts of the computer's files from over the past years and found enough to get back to June 2021, when I had my last drive backup. So, the stuff I did until the end of September was gone. And I don’t have much recall as to what all that was—since I relied on the computer to store it—but I know some were important and now irretrievable. Holes in my memory.

However, the really interesting thing about this whole experience—which I was quickly aware of, after settling down a bit—was the fact that I actually did lose memory from my brain and that it was analogous to other types of memory loss due to stroke, concussion, dementia, etc. It certainly wasn't anywhere near the memory loss of those types, because they affect such a broad scope of not only memory but many other cognitive functions. Yet, it was significant for me as to what was missing—and could have been much worse, such as my book manuscripts being almost ready for publication and then "Poof!" instead of already being published.

Besides assessing what was lost and what might be found later, I had to face evaluating these digital memories: were they old and no longer relevant, were they essential for legal purposes such as taxes and finance, were they simply nostalgic and hadn't been accessed in years, or what? In some cases, it was evaluation tinged with emotion since those particular special memories were something I'd never read or see again, never be able to reach out and enjoy the feelings brought out by the tendrils of words and images that were now gone forever. It certainly wasn't the hodge-podge of entangled incomplete memories affecting those with memory disease, such as my wife’s Alzheimer’s, but still, a bit jumbled because of the holes left by the missing memories.

Furthermore, beyond discovering and evaluating what was lost, it also made me aware of how central those memories and access to them—as well as the ability to investigate the world outside my mind and add new memories—was to my daily routine. I was very used to being able to, at will, investigate every little and big curiosity I had, every day. Instead, I had to drop the computer off at the shop and come home to stare at my cleared-off desk, sort of an empty-nest syndrome: That inquisitive little family member was no longer inhabiting my house, and was now gone out into the big world (in this case, the hospital). Uhh, what do I do now?

So, I adapted while I waited for the prognosis of my diseased memory extension. That stack of unread magazines grew a lot smaller, and there was a lot of interesting stuff in them to think about, and I don't feel so guilty about not having done it long before this. Some longer walks with Chewy. Some more extended time just watching other bits of life occurring about me. Things like that. And then the bad news: I had to face up to a bit of a brain lobotomy, and keep on going, memory-impaired.

Still, it's just like with the tons of photos and slides of the past half-century in the boxes downstairs which we never looked at, and all the file cabinet contents of folders of old letters, documents and magazine articles, and the several trunks in the garage shop containing high school scrapbooks, our letters to each other and family members, momento clothing items, etc. which we never, or extremely rarely, looked at—other than to comment, "OMG," and quickly close the lids. Whew! So, perhaps some cultural memories of the physical type really shouldn't be mourned, including some of the digital kind, like my computer files.

Beyond "do I truly need this?" the question is "do I really want this, anyway?" So, the evaluation of old stored physical stuff should be lumped in with the evaluation of my digital files, which are all lumped together with an overall evaluation of what is valuable enough to keep in my life, either physically or in my mind. Truly, the past is done and gone—can’t change anything there. However, the present is where I can change things and should focus my efforts to live as best I can; and planning for the future is just a way of trying to make experiencing the emerging present as best as possible—and accepting what happens.

In retrospect, now that I’ve accepted my loss in this recent experience with the present, maybe clearing out some of the cobwebs of memory once in a while is a good thing after all; but perhaps done a little more deliberately, and without the surprise.

And, my plan for the present and future? A solid backup procedure.

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