Baudelaire famously described his memory as “a tomb, a corpse filled Potter’s field/a pyramid where the dead lie down by scores/I am a graveyard that the moon abhors.” Well, the neural reality of the brain suggests that his poetic metaphors weren’t such exaggerations. That, at least, is the implication of a bizarre new finding:
Surgeons made this accidental discovery while a 50-year-old-male patient was undergoing “deep brain stimulation,” as part of an experimental treatment for obesity.
With the patient under local anesthesia, but fully awake, surgeons traveled into the deepest recesses of the brain, moving gingerly at a quarter of an inch an hour, listening to electrical “pulses,” as millions of brain cells communicated with each other.
But amazingly, in the midst of the operation, something completely unexpected happened. The patient suddenly reported a flood of intricately detailed memories from an incident decades ago.
Think about how surreal this is: the man thought he had forgotten these memories. He thought they had faded from his brain. And yet, the memories were still there, persisting as an immutable network of interconnected neurons. The question, of course, is how this persistence occurs. After all, the cells of the brain, like all of our cells, are in constant flux. The average half-life of a brain protein is only 14 days. Our hippocampal neurons die, and are reborn, the mind in a constant state of reincarnation. In my book, I talk about the prion-CPEB hypothesis, which could possibly account for experiments like this and the sentimental fiction of Proust. (Like the subject of this neurological report, Proust was convinced that he’d forgotten all about Combray and his childhood. But then he ate the madeleine: the cookie was like a jolt of electricity.)
Thanks to Sarah for the tip!