What if you could no longer remember your past? Would you still be you?
The food you love, the hobbies you enjoy, the job you have, and all the other parts of your life were partially shaped by other people you met and knew through your life. What if all of those people and what they meant to you were gone?
In this fascinating and haunting article, Amnesia and the Self That Remains When Memory Is Lost, Daniel Levitin talks with Tom, a man suffering retrograde amnesia as a result of an inoperable brain tumor. Nearing the end of his life, is Tom the same person Daniel knew from back in college?
Whether you prefer chocolate ice cream or vanilla, action movies or comedies, is part of the story, but the ability to know those preferences through accumulated memory is what defines you as a person.
Tom doesn’t remember Daniel when he arrives, but asks patient questions about how they know each other, and what they meant to each other. Tom is a man who knows he has a past, knows he cannot remember it, and is curiously exploring it in the time he has left.
“Please forgive me for asking this, but I do this with everybody. Could you tell me your name again and how it is that I know you?” – Tom
This isn’t the tired TV trope of someone getting knocked on the head and getting amnesia for the next hour. The strands of Tom’s life are completely and permanently gone for him. As he asks the people he meets how they know each other, he understands the complexity of the question. He understands that these people helped make him who he is, sitting here now, even if he can’t recall what brought them together.
“There’s often this . . . gray area, I guess you’d call it, in human relationships, isn’t there? We meet people, we see them every day, we say hello, but we don’t really know them. We say they’re our friends, but really, you can’t be friends with the hundreds of people you meet, can you? It’s enough that we had a shared history together. We were in the same places for a time. We were part of each other’s fabric.” – Tom
The people we encounter, whether friends or lovers or casual conversationalists in line at the coffee shop, all help shape you in both little and large ways. You are who you are partially because of the people you meet along the way, and even if one day their names and faces are forgotten, you will always carry them with you.