Conversation: Mike Lemonick & the Perpetual Now

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I’ve known Mike Lemonick for several thousand years, ever since he assigned me to write a news story.  And I was then, as I still am, congenitally unable to write news stories.  All I remember is that I blew the news story and Mike had to completely rewrite it. I don’t remember the story, I don’t remember the magazine, I’m not even entirely sure it was Mike. Obviously, this post is going to be on memory, about which Mike has written a new book.

Ann:  Here’s how Mike begins his book:  he’s walking down a street in his home town, Princeton, and he runs into a woman he’s known since the time they both played in middle school orchestra.  He remembers, instantly and almost uncontrollably, playing the bugle call on his trumpet every morning before assembly, screwing it up every time, and how the other kids in his class got on his case about it, also about his clothes and haircut.  He’s reminding us what we know: how memory normally works.

The woman, whose name is Aline, asks him if he knows about what happened to her sister, who’s a few years older than Mike and Aline.  Aline tells Mike that several years ago, her sister, Lonni Sue, got a brain infection that more or less wiped out her memory.  That is, Lonni Sue remembers almost nothing of her past and the present for only a few minutes and then that’s gone too.  Mike goes to visit Lonni Sue, says, “Hi, I’m Mike.”  And she’s delighted to see him and they talk for a minute about her drawings, then she says, “Hi, my name’s Lonni Sue.  What’s yours?”  The title of Mike’s book is The Perpetual Now. And I have questions.

Mike: Before you ask those questions, the magazine was Science Digest, which was (mercifully) put out of its misery in 1986. The story had something to do with quantum uncertainty; you used the analogy of a pitcher throwing a baseball—I no longer remember why. But I do remember that you didn’t “blow” the story in any sense, and that I was intimidated to be editing you. OK, on to your questions.

Ann:  Was the story about macroscopic quantum effects, like the pitcher threw the baseball at the wall and the baseball couldn’t go through the wall but appeared on the other side anyway?  Maybe I remember that — we’re talking 30 years ago.  But I did blow the story, and thank you anyway.  

The first question which comes up the minute the reader understands what’s going on with Lonni Sue, that she has no memory of the past and no sense of the future — wait, I don’t remember, does Lonni Sue have a sense of the future?

Mike: She doesn’t seem to, from what I observed. When you ask her what she’ll be doing later in the day, or tomorrow, or next month, she has a great deal of trouble coming up with a specific answer. “I’ll have to check my schedule,” she’ll say – she has a detailed schedule of activities delivered every morning to her door in the institution where she lives, which she adds to based on events her sister and caretaker, Aline, tells her about.

This is very similar to what the amnesia victim Henry Molaison, known to the public only as H.M. while he was alive, would say. If you asked him what he’d be doing the following day, he’d usually reply: “whatever is beneficial.” Like Johnson, he was essentially incapable of imagining the future. The Canadian neuroscientist Endel Tulving argued that memory is a form of mental time travel, and that the sort of amnesia Molaison suffered from until his death in 2008, and which Johnson suffers from now, prevents them not only from traveling mentally into the past, but also into the future.

Ann:  So Lonni Sue knows she has a past and a future, she just doesn’t know what’s in them?  Anyway, when I think about who I am, I’m definitely my past.  My life experiences, which I know about because I remember them, tell me who I am.  And my future is all dread and hope, but also definitely me.  So without a past or a future, who am I?  How would you answer that for Lonni Sue?  

Mike: When I started working on this book, I felt the same way: the working title was “The Woman Who Lost Her Self.” By the time I reached the end, though, my attitude was completely different. By then I’d heard stories from people who had known Lonni Sue throughout her life. I’d spoken with the scientists who are studying her now. I’ve spoken at great length with her sister and, before her death in 2015 at the age of 97, with her mother, Maggi. I realized I was quite wrong.

Lonni Sue has lost enormous swaths of memory (she no longer recalls that she was married for ten years, for example). But her essence is still unmistakably there. Everyone who knew her before the infection that destroyed her medial temporal lobes says she inevitably charmed whoever she met. She still does. “She walks around with her full identity wherever she goes,” Aline told me. “With what she carries, and with what she says.”

I changed the title.

Ann:  Ha. Wow.  Well done.  I think that figuring out what part of your character doesn’t depend on your past and future is a lot like figuring out who you are without your body on.  I also think we’d be wise to drop that subject like a hot rock.  

My next question:  you’ve got neuroscience sprinkled around in the book where it’s needed but you save the full-on neuro/cognitive science until about 7/8 of the way through the book. I thought that was very smart of you, because by that time I really, really wanted to know what was going on in Lonni Sue’s brain.  Is declarative memory like explaining how to play the piano and procedural memory like when my fingers play the piece by themselves?  What I really don’t get is episodic memory — what is it?

Mike: The nuts and bolts of neuroscience are quite complicated and hard to follow, so you’re absolutely right: I fiendishly waited until the reader was (I hoped) fully invested in Lonni Sue’s personal story before lowering that boom. And even then, I didn’t go into any more detail than I thought necessary. Einstein reportedly said “A theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.” That’s how I approach technical topics like this–I try to simplify right up to the edge of what’s reasonable. I try not to go over that line, of course.

Ann:   That fiendish approach is SO smart and I wish more science writers followed it:  just enough and just where it’s wanted.  Thank you.  I’m done interrupting, back to the subject.

Mike:  Declarative memory is the set of things you can bring to mind in a sentence that begins “I remember…..” If you complete that sentence with a fact, such  as “….that Paris is the capital of France” or “….that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas,” you’re calling on the subset of declarative memory known as semantic memory. These aren’t personal memories, but rather memories of things about the world. “I know that Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa” is a semantic memory. So is “I remember that I can play the piano.”

Episodic memory is the other subset of declarative memory. It refers to specific episodes in your own life. So “I remember the moment when my daughter was born. She had some distress, so they whisked her out of the room, but then I heard a baby crying in the hallway, and asked the nurses, ‘Is that her?’” (It was). That’s an episodic memory. Here’s another: “I remember the time some friends and I decided to ride our bikes to Philadelphia on a cold November morning, starting before sunrise. They were late to the rendezvous point, and I more than half hoped they wouldn’t show up at all.” Again, a specific episode. In patients like H.M. and Lonni Sue, episodic memories seem to be more strongly affected than semantic memories, although she has lost a great deal of semantic memory as well.

Ann:  All those kinds of memory remind me of an astronomy story I wrote long ago about these weird things, nobody knew what they were. So astronomers called them all different names (blazars, liners, FRI’s).  They finally figured out those different things were all the same kind of thing, galaxies with actively-feeding black holes seen from different angles — head-on, sideways, etc. — and astronomers finally gave them all the same name (active galactic nuclei, AGN).  This is a long way to ask an impertinent question:  do you wonder whether all these different kinds of memory are really all aspects of the same thing and the neuro/cognitive scientists just don’t know that yet?  Or is this analogy just BS, as so many of my analogies are?

Mike: I don’t think it’s BS at all. One thing I discovered in writing this book is that the tidy distinctions between categories of memory established by H.M.’s case aren’t nearly so tidy as they seem. Procedural memories (how to walk, talk, ride a bike, play the piano, hit a tennis ball) are almost impossible to describe in words, and H.M. was able to learn new procedural tasks even though he couldn’t learn new facts. Therefore, procedural memory was seen as entirely separate from declarative memory

Except it now turns out that it isn’t entirely. Lonni Sue Johnson has forgotten many facts, such as which artists painted some of the most familiar paintings in the world. Yet she can describe–in words, not simply by doing–how to prepare and execute a watercolor. She can also answer many factual questions about rules and regulations of flying (she was a pilot as well as an artist and musician). It seems increasingly clear that memory is a complex network of different skills, some of which are more or less impaired by specific brain injuries, but which is fully integrated in people whose brains are intact.

Ann:  Now that you mention it, one of the many things I liked about your book is that it’s not declarative, it’s episodic, and though Lonni Sue is basically somebody that the neuroscientists are studying, she’s not presented as a subject and the scientists are not presented as scientists. I feel as though I know all of them, they’re all highly interesting people, and I like them, every one, so thank you.  Now I’m wondering whether you were more engaged than you usually are with these people and this book.

Mike: I was, yes. This is the first time I’ve written a book that focuses on one central character, so of necessity I had to keep returning to her again and again–spending time with her in different situations, including testing sessions, visits to her room at the assisted living facility where she is now, visits to the family home where she would frequently spend time with her mother and sister. When I’m reporting on facts, like the search for exoplanets or something like that, I do small character sketches of the scientists, but don’t delve deeply. In this case, Lonni Sue herself WAS the story. I had to be engaged to write it. And because she can’t remember her own story story, I had to be engaged with the people who have known her throughout her life as well, and also with the scientists.

Ann:   Another question: is Lonni Sue extremely credulous?  If every day is the first day of her life, can she tell whom to trust? Can she decide what’s a good thing to do?

Mike: She can’t decide, and yes, she is extremely trusting and credulous. It’s not just that every day is the first day; it’s also her personality, which is very warm and open. Her sister worries constantly that someone might try to take advantage of her, which is why she won’t allow anyone to reveal the specifics of where Lonni Sue lives. Fortunately, she’s always in a place where there are people to look after her. She doesn’t, and really can’t, just go wandering around by herself.

Ann:  Slacker that I am, I only now looked up Lonni Sue on the internet.  She has a website, articles have been written about her, and you collaborated on a tiny documentary.  Her art, before and after encephalitis, really is as charming as you say in the book it is.  But it’s your documentary that made me understand your answer to my first question, and I love the way Aline says it: ““She walks around with her full identity wherever she goes.”  

Mike: I feel extremely lucky that this story came to me. Just to clarify, though, it’s not my documentary. It was made by the very talented filmmaker Jim Fields to accompany my feature in Time.

Ann:  Regardless, seeing her made me understand a little better, and I guess my own answer would be, whether she remembers the past or imagines the future or not, she’s still the person that her past and imagination have made her.  Or maybe she was born that way, like babies who from their first days have whatever magic “character” is.  What a splendid thing to have written a book about!

Mike: I think it’s the latter–she was born that way. The brain damage from the encephalitis has evidently affected her frontal lobes somewhat, so she’s more uninhibited than she was before. Everyone who knew her pre-amnesia says she was always warm and affectionate, but that she tended to fade into the background. That’s no longer the case. And yes, a splendid thing. If nobody buys the book, I’ll still be glad I had that experience (but I hope I don’t have to  test that proposition).

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Michael D. Lemonick is Opinion Editor at Scientific American. Previously, he was a senior science writer at TIME, where he wrote more than 50 cover stories, and an editor at Discover and Science Digest magazines. He has also been a freelance contributor to Discover, Scientific American, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and The New Yorker, and written seven books.

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Photo of Lonni Sue Johnson by Eileen Hohmuth-Lemonick.

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Categorized in: Ann, Mind/Brain, On Writing

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