Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Morbid memory

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There are very few thoughtful persons to whom the question has not presented itself, What is the nature of the operation of that extraordinary psychological phenomenon, memory? With a very slight effort of will we are enabled to recall, at a moment’s notice, long past events with startling vividness. We fold up and carry in our cerebrum the scenes and incidents of years of travel; we summon at will the faces of thousands of persons, who have been seen by us only for a moment; we invert our mental vision, and there upon the tablet of the brain we see as vividly as in a camera, the groupings of scenes that have occurred in eventful periods of our lives. How are all these myriads of images written upon the grey matter of the brain, and so ordered, sorted, and grouped that we can select exactly those we want from the immense store, without disturbing the remainder? Inscrutable as the mystery seems to be, we may yet gather some light from a study of the same phenomena in a state of disease. A very valuable, practical work[1] has just appeared from the pen of Dr. Winslow (whose researches in the science of mental and cerebral pathology are so well known), some chapters of which on morbid conditions of memory, open to the general reader entirely new ground.

Doctor Winslow is a thorough believer in the indestructibility of mental impressions. Ideas once registered in the brain can never he believes be effaced: they may be latent for the better part of a life-time masked by succeeding ideas, but under certain conditions are liable at any moment to re-appear in all their magical freshness. But how account for the persistence of memory, if the very tablet of the brain, in common with other portions of the body, is continually undergoing change, and within a certain time is most certainly entirely renewed. How remember, if the very remembrancer is annihilated? In order to explain this apparent difficulty, Doctor Winslow points to the wonderful manner in which family peculiarities are handed down from generation to generation. A certain stamp of feature given by one member of a family will continue through a long descent, as we may see in many a portrait gallery, nay little peculiarities such as moles, twists of the fingers, a drooping of the eyelids, seem quite persistent. Some persons, for instance, will have certain marks on their nails, which however cut off will continue to perpetuate themselves to the latest moment of life. The natural inference is, that in the process of growth the old and decaying particle is succeeded by a new particle exactly corresponding with itself. The newer vesicle of the brain thus stamped with a certain image is succeeded by a new generation of vesicles as certainly a copy of that which went before them as a photograph is a duplicate of that which it images. In this manner, in consequence of the wonderful assimilative power of the blood, the brain is always changing, but in a state of health, is ever changeless, and the ideas impinged upon it remain ineffaceable. But when disease commences, it is easily understood what vagaries may arise with respect to the memory. Dr. Winslow’s work presents us with some most extraordinary examples of the aberrations thus taking place, which amount to psychological curiosities of the most interesting kind. We are all familiar with the fact, that in the gradual decay of memory in old age, the images of our youth seem revived within us.

The ideas stamped upon the brain in early youth, although long apparently forgotten, come back with the tottering step of second childhood; but there is reason to believe that in certain affections of the brain the memory retreats from us in a sequential manner. Thus, an Italian gentleman residing in New York, and who had acquired the French and then the English language, happening to be attacked with yellow fever, it was observed that in the commencement of his illness he spoke the tongue he had learned last, the French in the middle of his disease, but his native tongue at the termination of his life. It is invariably the case, that our last prayers are delivered in our native tongue, notwithstanding that we may have disused it for a long period of time. It is also observable that, in many cases where the memory of recent events had been replaced by those of early life in persons suffering from illness, on the recovery of health the order of things was reversed, recent events recurring to the mind to the utter oblivion of older memories, the one replacing the other with the regularity of a dissolving view. But a still more extraordinary condition of the brain is that which Dr. Winslow points out, in which the loss of memory is total, consequent upon an attack of apoplexy. Many cases of this kind have been recorded, in which the mind of the man has been reduced to that of a young child, and all the elementary knowledge of youth has had to be acquired afresh; or, more singular still, a double state of knowledge has been set up in the same person! For instance, a young lady, whose memory was well stored and capacious, suddenly fell asleep; on awaking, it was discovered that she had lost every iota of acquired knowledge, and that her mind was reduced to a perfect blank. With great effort she was gradually mastering, as a child would do, the first lessons of youth, when she suddenly fell into a sound sleep, on awaking from which it was discovered that she had recovered her old state of knowledge. The old and new states alternated with each other; at one moment she was the accomplished woman, at another she possessed the mental calibre of a child; in the old state she wrote a beautiful hand, in the new a cramped stiff character, such as children do. In this extraordinary condition she remained for four years; a double mind, as it were, took possession of her, she being conscious only of the state she may have happened to have been in at the time.

In others, again, the loss of memory is confined to particular letters. Dr. Greaves relates a case of a farmer who, subsequent to a paralytic fit, lost the names of substantives and proper names. He perfectly recollected, however, the initial letter of any substantive or proper name he wished to talk about, but the word itself would not be recalled. In order to help himself in this difficulty, he was in the habit of taking with him a manuscript list of those things he was in the habit of speaking about; and these he arranged in an alphabetical manner, which he carried about with him, and used as follows: if he wished to ask anything about a cow, before he commenced the sentence, he turned to the letter C, and looked out for the word Cow, and kept his finger and eye on the word until he had finished the sentence. This partial loss of memory is often the consequence of paralysis; sometimes a singular transposition of letters is the only abnormal sign noticed. Dr. Winslow, for instance, mentions the case of a gentleman who invariably reversed their order; for instance, he always said puc for cup, and gum for mug.

Sudden concussions of the brain arising from external injury sometimes produce a total loss of consciousness for a greater or lesser space of time. It is observable, however, that upon recovery the mind immediately recurs to the last action or thought it was employed upon before its powers were suspended, and endeavours to continue its action. A little girl, engaged in play with some companion, happened to fall and injure her head whilst catching a toy that was thrown to her. For ten hours she was totally unconscious; upon opening her eyes, however, she immediately jumped to the side of the bed, and assuming the action of catching, exclaimed, “Where is it? where did you throw it?” A more singular instance still of the manner in which the brain will catch up and continue its last train of thought, even after a considerable lapse of time, is the following:—A British captain, whilst giving orders on the quarter-deck of his ship at the Battle of the Nile, was struck on the head by a shot, and immediately became senseless. He was taken home, and removed to Greenwich Hospital, where for fifteen months he evinced no sign of intelligence. He was then trephined; and immediately upon the operation being performed, consciousness returned, and he immediately began busying himself to see the orders carried out that he had given during the battle fifteen months previously. The clockwork of the brain, unaware that it had stopped, upon being set going again, pointed to the exact minute at which it had left off. These sudden revivals of a lost intelligence almost rival in their dramatic effect the effect of the Prince’s advent in the palace of the Sleeping Beauty, where at the magic of a kiss, the inmates of the Royal Household, who had gone to sleep for a hundred years transfixed in their old attitudes, leapt suddenly into life and motion, as though they had only for a moment slept:—

The hedge broke in, the banner flew,
The butler drank, the steward scrawl’d,
The fire shot up, the marten flew,
The parrot scream’d, the peacock squall’d,
The maid and page renewed their strife,
The palace bang’d and buzz’d and clackt,
And all the long-pent stream of life
Dash’d downward in a cataract.

So, true is it that all fiction must be founded upon fact, and the strongest vagaries of the romancer can always be matched by the calm experience of the philosopher.

But in the remarkable examples of sudden loss of memory we have instanced, recovery has either slowly followed through the operations of nature or through some surgical operation; but there are not wanting cases to prove that the merest mechanical agencies have been sufficient to restore it. To these cases we might almost quote the old medical aphorism, “Similia similibus curantur,” to wit, a man, in consequence of a severe blow upon the head, suffers from a paralysis of the memory; he falls from a window, a concussion of the brain follows, and, the result is, a restoration of his memory to its original strength! Nay, in cases where not only the memory has been impaired, but all the other faculties of the brain also, where idiotcy, in fact, has existed, a sudden injury to the head has been known to shake the brain into a healthy condition. In such cases it would appear that the injury to the brain must have been brought about by a slight mechanical derangement of some part of its structure; in the same manner, a clock that suddenly stops without apparent cause may be made to go on again by giving it a gentle strike. We have only quoted a few of the many extraordinary examples from the chapter on Disordered Memory in Dr. Winslow’s work, which, although a scientific and practical treatise on the incipient symptoms of the diseases of the brain and disorders of the mind (useful as a text-book for the medical profession), is charming as a modern romance. These illustrations, we think, tend to prove that the doctrine he espouses, of the indestructibility of mental impressions, may be sound, and that, starting from this point, the path is laid for important future discoveries in one of the most extraordinary sections of psychological inquiry.

A. W.

  1. On Obscure Diseases of the Brain and Disorders of the Mind. By Forbes Winslow, M.D., D.C.L.