Memory for most of us is a window into our past and the glue that holds our personality together. When my mother can’t remember what she ate for breakfast or if she’s been given her medication, I am filled with sadness. But what I’m reflecting is my bias. My mother is happy. If I were to take her out for Indian food every day, she’d wouldn’t be the wiser. Telling her the same story over and over again would draw the same degree of laughter. If she became annoyed with me, it would soon be forgotten. As Buddha would say, she lives in the moment.
While my mother’s condition can be laid to aging, there are a rare few for whom living in the moment is their only option, even though they are young. What they are unable to do is see their existence as a running narrative. They have no episodic memory. Like an amnesia victim in a television drama, they can talk, use a knife and a fork and puzzle out information, but they remember nothing of their history. They have only semantic memory, the ability to retain facts. Lacking episodic memory, a person may enjoy story but never write one. (“In a Perpetual Present,” by Erika Hayasaki, Wired, April 2016, pgs. 85-91.)
Without the ability to remember, there can be no assumptions about the future based upon the past. Playing a game of chess or bridge would be impossible as there is no notion of sequence. (Ibid pg. 91.) Even so, this inability to imagine has little impact on personal relationships and the ability to live what appears to be a normal life.
Given what we know about the absence of episodic memory, one wonders about its purpose. When we have it, we retain sad memories, past traumas, and senseless grudges. Without it, we have no concept of change and never sense ourselves as growing old. Nonetheless, I suspect few of us would wish give up our memories. When we are prevented from knowing our stories, we become strangers to ourselves.