11.01.2010

Memory = identity?

Who you are consists largely of two sets of inputs: your genes and your memories. You come into this world with the genes, a biochemical plan within each cell for how you will grow, mature, and, to a significant extent, age. Much of this basic plan is immutable. You can no more change your likelihood of developing male pattern baldness than you can change your maternal grandmother. What keeps this genetic plan from being wholly inexorable, however, is your ability to change, to learn, to adapt. Learning is the process by which memories are made, meaning that memory, far more than being a simple repository, is the principal shaper of who you are. This leads to obvious questions: What is the thing that makes us who we are? What happens inside your head when you park your car and walk to your office, a restaurant, or home? Who was your third-grade teacher? What was Euclid's third axiom? How do you know, when you want to drive it again, where your car is? (p. 17 of 101 Theory Drive)

Wow, right? This explains so much. This is why it's so heartbreaking to spend time with someone you know who has Alzheimer's or dementia. They look like themselves. Their genetics trick us into believing they are still the same person. After all, people who lose their memories do not lose their physical identity. But without these memories, they're only half themselves.

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