I was interested to catch, on BBC Sounds recently, a programme made by William Miller about his father Jonathan. (Radio 4, Archive on 4: Lost Memories). Jonathan Miller was fascinated by the human brain and in particular the workings of memory. It was a cruel irony that in the end his own brain was destroyed by Alzheimer’s. Making the programme was clearly cathartic for his son, who was trying to come to a better understanding of his father’s life work. And it was, of course, of particular interest to me as I watch my partner struggle with the same disease.
While listening to a talk on the Throssel website, I wrote down the following quote by Reverend Jishin. (These may not be her precise words). “We are inextricable from all that’s gone before. Our sense of being as an individual is based on that. (…) There is no separated off and permanent me.”
And in the programme, William Miller says that ‘Memory is what makes us who we are. Our memory of our lives is what ties us together.’ (I think he meant into a coherent personality.)
I think, until watching someone else struggle, I had not fully understood the enormity of this; that ‘There is then nothing more than this.’ Hearing quotes from a string of academics, I learned that memories do not in fact exist per se; that memory is a suite of different systems which our brain organises into recognisable recollections. Memories themselves are processes or actions and have no separate existence in the brain. The brain is constantly editing memory and this edited version becomes the story of our lives. And, of course, we have all experienced instances when even shared events will be remembered differently by different individuals, leaving us to ponder whether there can be such a thing as verifiable ‘reality.’
And so, with the loss of the sense of our own past, what is left? The answer of course must be ‘nothing.’ The body will persist, maybe for quite a while, but that which made the recognisable person is no more. What I think we do is to project onto that body our own memories of how the person used to be. It is so hard really to comprehend and to accept that the person has ‘checked out’.
William Miller asked his mother, in an interview before his father died, whether she felt that she still had a relationship with him. Her answer was that they did have a relationship. ‘He is able still to recognise me as someone who is different (from the carers). But it is not a proper relationship. It is not a meeting of minds in any way.’
That’s a good description. Slowly the person, this unique collection of memories, recedes. My partner remembers almost nothing of anything we have done over the five years that we have been together. He still remembers a lot about life well before that and is therefore able to establish some sort of conversation with his family that he cannot do with me. But what he does say, and this fits with what William Miller’s mother said, is that he remembers love and happiness, in the abstract, even if he can’t remember anything about the things we have done, places we have been, trips we have had.
And so I often remind myself of the famous Larkin poem “An Arundel Tomb’ whose much quoted last line ‘What will survive of us is love,’ offers some modicum of comfort. Perhaps that awareness of love, however it is formed, is one of the last parts of the brain to disappear.