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Culture & Religion

What Is Memory, Anyway?

“A few snapshots.” According to novelist Tim O’Brien, that’s all our minds retain of our childhoods, adulthoods, and even the people we’ve loved most deeply. “And that’s memory? Little remnant of a lifetime, that’s what’s left to us?” O’Brien isn’t the only one fascinated and baffled by the phenomenon we call remembering. His meditations on aging and loss—along with a moving recollection from his tour of duty in Vietnam—kick off Big Think’s newest series, “The Mystery of Memory.

Exploring that mystery from both the objective and subjective angles, the series presents three noted experts in the evolving science of memory, as well as three writers whose unusual experiences with memory demonstrate just how much science has yet to explain. In the former camp are Columbia neurobiologist Ottavio Arancio, whose research into a once-ignored protein may reveal how memories are formed—and lost; Gary Small, Director of the UCLA Center on Aging, who explains why the modern habit of multitasking may be weakening our memories; and Marcelo Magnasco, mathematical physicist at The Rockefeller University, who describes the difficulties artificial memory researchers have in understanding how our memories are organized.

Joining O’Brien in the second camp are Siri Hustvedt, whose bizarre seizure at her father’s memorial service (recounted in her memoir, “The Shaking Woman”) sparked her interest in the emerging field of neuropsychoanalysis, and her fellow memoirist Augusten Burroughs (“Running With Scissors”), whose experience of memory is the polar opposite of O’Brien’s. Burroughs claims to recall his childhood, from infancy onward, in extraordinarily vivid detail—a phenomenon he believes is connected with the Asperger’s syndrome that runs in his family.

We hope it’s a series you won’t forget.


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