Changing state

I remember having my tonsils removed. I was four or five at the time and I recall the lima bean green walls of the hospital, the bed with railings, and I remember when they put me out I saw everything go dark and then explosions of light like fireworks and then the memory just stops. I remember I woke up and my mom was there, smiling at me and telling me I could have ice cream almost any time I wanted. She said the coolness of it would help soothe my throat, which did hurt a little and feel scratchy. I don’t, however, remember getting any ice cream although I’m sure I did. I just don’t remember. It’s kind of funny the way we can remember things that happened, but only little pieces of it rather than the whole thing from start to finish. Yet, other things we do remember, down to little details like how light reflected off of something or the way something smelled. Brain experts have all sorts of opinions about how memory works, but frankly, I think they’re guessing or just making stuff up.

I say that because they’ll go off on some tangent about deterioration or how the brain moves recollections from one place to another the way an Atlas Van Lines truck shows up and moves all your furniture from one house to another. While we get a few things about the way the brain works, I think we still have a long way to go before we start pontificating about why some memories degrade and others don’t. I heard one expert say that the significance of events has a lot to do with how much we remember. He said that when something had great emotional impact that we would remember it. He went on to say that some events had so much impact that we only remember bits and pieces as the brain kept a record of the event but out of kindness and generosity it fanned away the details of intensity as if the dog just passed gas and we say “eew” and fan the air. See? It’s like they don’t really know what they’re talking about. Or maybe they do and just forgot some of the salient details because what they learned was so emotionally significant.

At a boarding school I went to in New Hampshire there was a place where they parked old cars and trucks and left them to be reclaimed by nature like an elephant burial ground. I used to wander around and look at the various hulks, crawling in, around, and over them as I looked at the pieces and components and tried to figure out what they did or how they worked. I laid across a front fender, my head in the engine compartment and studied what I later learned was a carburetor. I finished looking at it and I slid down off the car, running my thigh over the fang-like shards of glass of a broken headlight and put a three inch long and inch deep gash in my leg. I recall it happening and I can still remember the queasy feeling I had, knowing what I’d done even before visually inspecting the wound.  I think I remember worrying that I might get into trouble for playing in and around the old car graveyard but I’m not really sure. In spite of recalling the odor of the car’s interior, the sunny blue sky and comfortable warmth of the day, remembering the texture of the rusted steel of the fender and the honeycomb pattern of the radiator, I don’t remember anything after looking at the cut and lamenting the damage to my pants. To this day I still have an ugly scar to remind myself of the incident, but I don’t remember anything at all after seeing the bloody hole in my corduroy pants. I even remember that it didn’t hurt all that much so I don’t think my memory is masking me from emotional trauma. If the brain did that, wouldn’t I block the incident entirely leaving questioning “I wonder how I got that scar?”

I have a theory. A teacher once told my class that every time we drank a caffeinated beverage we killed hundreds of thousands of brain cells but that was okay because we made as many or more all the time. Our bodies were forever discarding and replacing cells. We walked around literally leaving a cloud of cells wafting behind as our bodies kept a frenetic pace killing and creating them. Maybe that’s what happens to memories. Maybe some of the cells that our body randomly schedules for execution have bits of memory in them. Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku and Neil Degrasse Tyson all say that science demonstrates that information is never lost. That’s like the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics that says that information can’t be lost but it can change state. Which means that the memories we have, a form of information, is never lost. We just moved it somewhere that we can’t find it kind of like my wife does by rearranging everything in the house as often as she changes socks. While I can never find anything, I know it’s still there somewhere, I just have to ask my wife where that where is. My memories are lost because my wife didn’t move them and can’t tell me where she put them this time.

I was going somewhere with all of this, but enough time has passed in the writing that the cells that had that information have changed state.