Borges and Memory: Encounters with the Human Brain

January 17, 2013

Like me and many other neuroscientists who study memory and who find ourselves explaining what we do to non-neuroscientists, Rodrigo Quian Quiroga must often have encountered people who claim they have a bad memory - and then offer themselves as experimental subjects. We live in a world that loves and worships memory, while its absence is seen as bad, even pathological. In Borges and Memory, the author uses the work of the renowned Argentine writer as a way to take us through the journey of memory research in humans, concluding that we could not function if we had unlimited memory capacity.

I should probably warn you that this is a book that uses Borges as an excuse to talk about memory: it is not one that offers a deep analysis of the neuroscience found within his writing. In the words of the author: “This is neither a book about Borges nor a textbook on memory; rather, it stems from my urge to tell a story that I find fascinating.” And fascinating it is.

Indeed, Borges and Memory feels like a quest to find out what makes scientists tick. And what makes Quian Quiroga tick? Taking Borges’ short story Funes the Memorious as his point of departure, the author begins his quest for scientific inspiration in literature, films, philosophy and science. Funes the Memorious tells the tale of Ireneo Funes, a peasant from Fray Bentos who wakes up after an accident with the ability to remember absolutely everything. Borges explores the consequences of this acquired skill, which eventually proves to be mentally devastating.

Quian Quiroga then considers reported cases of extraordinary memory, such as that of Solomon Shereshevskii, who was studied by Alexander Luria, the famous Russian psychologist and founder of modern neuropsychology. He compares it with the case of the most famous subject in the history of neuroscience, Henry Molaison, known as patient H.M., an American who had his hippocampus removed in 1953 in an attempt to cure the epileptic seizures and “profound amnesia” that resulted from his being knocked down by a cyclist as a boy. The many studies of H.M., who was in a sense the opposite of Borges’ Funes, gave rise to modern theories of memory.

After a few detours on subjects including consciousness and prodigious minds, Quian Quiroga writes about his own experiments on neuronal recordings from humans. These experiments are fascinating, as they indicate that there are neurons in the hippocampus that are activated by abstract concepts. The most famous one is the cell that reacts to the actor Jennifer Aniston. This neuron not only reacts to different pictures of her but also to her written and spoken name, and stimuli related to her. Quian Quiroga links his discoveries to Funes’ capacity to remember every detail. Funes was not able to generalise information: for him, every event and each subject, animal or thing was unique and dissimilar to everything else. Thus, one theory is that Funes would lack these “Jennifer Aniston”-type neurons.

There are many books on neuroscience and memory for non-scientists. Perhaps the most important contribution of Borges and Memory to the literature is the way it is written: straight from the gut of the scientist. Quian Quiroga recounts the scientific facts and the history of the discoveries with all the curiosity and the fascination of a scientist taking his first steps (even though he is a seasoned researcher). A reader who is a scientist may, like me, rediscover the feelings that inspire our quest for questions and answers. For non-scientists, this book is the perfect way to get inside the mind of a researcher: Borges and Memory is as interesting as it is inspirational.

Borges and Memory: Encounters with the Human Brain

By Rodrigo Quian Quiroga

Translated by Juan Pablo Fernandez

MIT Press, 224pp, £17.95

ISBN 9780262018210

Published 16 November 2012

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