The Nature of Memory, with Augusten Burroughs

Question: Is acute memory an affliction?

Augusten Burroughs: It’s a double-edged sword in the sense that it’s very vivid, so when I was writing "[A] Wolf at the Table," for example, my fingers were cold. It was like I was writing outside in the winter and my heart would be pounding and I would be scared. It was very real. Those memories come back and they come back in full force and it can be overwhelming so that’s one edge of the sword; that’s the side of the sword that cuts. 

The other edge is that it is possible to access those memories. Those aren’t lost to me. I know some people who don’t have any memories really before the age of 12 and I’m astonished by that. I’ve often been asked “How can you remember a conversation you had when you were 10?” And I just find it fascinating that you can’t, 'cause I can remember being a baby. I can remember being not only 15 months old, where A Wolf at the Table begins, but I can remember being about 8 months old, so it’s--my brother, John Elder Robison, has Asperger's syndrome, and he’s become--and he’s an authority on the topic and he does a lot of lectures and he does a lot of work with people who are on the spectrum. So that’s autism, Asperger’s, and he’s found out something very interesting in his meetings with people who have--who are neuroatypical in that many of them have incredible childhood memories, very vivid childhood memories. 

So my brother has wondered if perhaps Asperger’s, autism runs more deeply in the family than just within himself. His son was recently diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. They think he might have it. I don’t know that it’s a firm diagnosis but they’re thinking he’s looking like he might. Now if my nephew does have Asperger’s it’s sort of much lighter. It’s "Asperger’s Lite," because he’s very--he is very social but he’s a genius, an absolute genius, so my brother has wondered if perhaps there is some of that in me, if something in my brain is similar to what is in his brain and that’s why in fact we have this peculiar memory where our childhood is very accessible to us.

Question: Are memories ever truly accurate?

Augusten Burroughs: Memory is an interesting thing. The way that--my understanding of how memory works is when an event occurs the neurotransmitter basically tattoos the sort of neural fiber in a distinctive pattern and then that tattooed neural fiber is put away in a filing cabinet and that’s the memory. 

Now when you go back and you open that file drawer and you pull out that tattooed neuron the act of pulling it out of the file drawer changes the shape of the tattoo so a new couple of lines to the tattoo are added and the memory is no longer pure; it’s now a little bit different. So then you put it back and you take it out again and each withdrawal of that memory alters the physical memory in our brain. In other words, it--each time you recall a memory it alters the actual memory. 

The structure of the patterns of the neurotransmitters on the neuron in the brain is altered each time you access the memory so that when we have a memory from childhood. 

For example, when I was 6 my father tripped over the Christmas tree and all the Christmas ornaments broke, and then you tell that story every year for the rest of your life. By the time you’re 30, you’re no longer recalling the original incident. You are now telling the story of the story of the story so it becomes like a game of Telephone. Now the way I wrote A Wolf at the Table and Running with Scissors is interesting because these were periods of my life where I didn’t want to think about so when I turned 18--after "Running with Scissors," when I turned 18, the first thing I did after my birthday was change my first, middle and last name and move to California. I was a new person. I didn’t have that childhood; it never happened. 

Now although I had written these journals throughout that period of time, I didn’t read them. I didn’t throw them away but I didn’t read them. I kept them in a box and I just blocked it out of my head so that many years later when I came to write Running with Scissors and I read these journals those original memories that were created under enormous duress so they were very vivid came back in full force. And that’s why I was able to trust them because they were not memories that I had recycled and told and told and told and told again and warped in my head. They were very true and it was the same thing with A Wolf at the Table. So it’s fascinating how that works.

Recorded on: April 30, 2008.

Augusten Burroughs does not possess the blessing of forgetfulness.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
  • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
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