Scientists, authors share ideas on memory at Johns Hopkins

April 06, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

Engaging the hippocampus is going to be as popular as eating hot dogs and drinking beer at Oriole Park at Camden Yards this afternoon.

That's because, as Larry Squire of the University of California at San Diego, explains it, "For a perception to transfer into memory, the hippocampus system has to become involved."

So, if those attending Opening Day are going to cherish their memories for years to come, their hippocampi, a part of the brain in in the media-temporal lobe, are going to be working overtime.

Otherwise, the images might go the way of the name of that person you met briefly on the way into the park. It never made it to the hippocampus. It's outta here.

Dr. Squire, a professor of psychiatry, was one of the dozen participants in a wide-ranging symposium at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions over the weekend that featured lectures on memory from people as diverse as prize-winning authors John Barth and Paul Fussell to Nobel-prize-winning scientists Leon Cooper and Gerald Edelman.

The talks covered the spectrum, from scientific reports on huge computers that are trying to duplicate brain processes, to philosophical speculation on the value of memory itself; from intricate details on which parts of the brain are activated when memory activities occur, to Mr. Barth's musings about how difficult it is for him to remember which of his cars has its gas tank cap on the driver's side.

"I think what you see less and less of is people talking about the brain as a mechanical thing, as some sort of computer system," said Oliver Sacks, the professor of neurology at New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

He is the author of "The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat" and "Awakenings," the latter made into the 1990 movie starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro.

"All of us seem to be converging on the uniqueness of the individual," Mr. Sacks said. "The fact that memory in particular is shot through with personal reference means that the quality of the individual is insured. As individuals, we are not programmed or fated. We are fated to be adventurers, the situation of novelty and spontaneity is forced on us."

But Mr. Fussell, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania who spoke of the way memory is stored in archetypal plots, noted that there was another side to that.

"We tend to see memory as the ultimate individual possession. We all have our memories to which no one else is privy," he said at the conference's end.

"But there is an opposite direction. Memory can be seen not solely as a solipsistic experience, but as the cement of society. This is what brings us together," Mr. Fussell said.

Gerald Edelman, a professor at Rockefeller University who won the Nobel Prize in medicine, said he thought the gap between the sciences and humanities was successfully crossed.

"The spirit that informed the conference was represented by the hope that, whatever our field, we are all trying to understand," he said.

At times it was evident that science in this area is occupying realms where philosophers usually tread.

For example, Gary Lynch of the University of California at Irvine wondered if the brain itself was just an accident of evolution that has no real use in the environment.

When rats encounter another being, Mr. Lynch observed, they move their whiskers back and forth seven times a second, a rhythm that sets up the exact brain wave needed for learning.

Is this, he wondered, because that rate is the best way to perceive the environment? Or is the brain dictating an inefficient mode of perception because of its own internal structure? Are we all prisoners of such structural dictates?

The philosopher present, Mary Warnock from England, provided her explanation of "why we value our ability to recall the past.

"We physically connect with the past because, though mortal, we can find ourselves connected with something eternal," she said.

Something eternal. Like baseball.

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