Medical Examiner

Living Memento

Is happiness worth losing your memory?

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up to get all of Slate’s free daily podcasts.

There was a time when I didn’t have a memory. It was the spring of 2001, after I suffered a Grade 3 concussion when a tow truck hit a taxi in which I was riding. For six months, I forgot conversations as soon as they were over, lost track of names and addresses, and often found myself on the street, or the subway, without any idea where I was headed or why.

Of course, everyone forgets things: We’ve all had the experience of walking into the kitchen and then losing track of why we came, or fumbling for the name of someone we’ve met a dozen times. But this was different. This was a complete erasure of linear time. Every moment was new, without history, and grounded in the past only by the detailed notes I kept for myself.

After about six months, the symptoms eventually lifted and my short-term memory returned. I had suffered no retrograde amnesia and should have been back to my “old self.” Except that my old self was no longer there. In the six-month space of my memory loss, I had quit my job at the software company I’d founded, unable to keep track of the many meetings, tasks, and personnel of which I was in charge. My longtime girlfriend had left me, prompting me to come to terms with my sexuality and come out to myself and my friends. And fundamentally, something about me had shifted—I had been skeptical, uptight, nervous. But now I was performing poetry at slams, dancing at bonfires in the desert, and traveling to new countries on a whim. At the time, it felt like a rebirth.

For three decades, Jonathan Cott was a successful music and cultural critic. A contributing editor to Rolling Stone since its inception, he wrote 15 books, including classic portraits of Lou Reed and John Lennon. In 1999, however, Cott underwent Electroconvulsive Therapy, or ECT—shock therapy, as it’s popularly known—to treat chronic depression. The ECT helped alleviate his symptoms. But as a result of it, Cott, like me, lost his short-term memory. He also suffered retrograde amnesia and effectively forgot 15 years of his life. According to his new book, On the Sea of Memory: A Journey From Forgetting to Remembering, Cott is unable to recall anything that happened to him between 1985 and 2000. When his friends tell stories of his “lost years,” he writes, “I listen to their stories with incredulity, amazement, shock, bewilderment, regret, and often with great amusement and acute embarrassment about the things that the I I am now who was the me I don’t remember apparently did.”

According to studies published by the American Psychiatric Association, about 120,000 Americans receive shock therapy every year. The numbers may seem surprising, given the treatment’s notorious past. Yet for people suffering from serious depression, ECT is often the only therapy that works. The APA and other professional organizations endorse it. And ECT has come a long way since the days of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when shock therapy was used as a catchall “cure” for phobias, “hysteria,” ulcers, psoriasis, and even homosexuality. Today it’s performed under general anesthesia, with paralyzing agents administered to prevent seizures, as a therapy of last resort after an affective disorder, usually depression, has been definitively diagnosed and medication has failed to alleviate it.

Nevertheless, ECT is radical—it’s basically the intentional infliction of brain damage. No one knows exactly why it works. Its link with memory loss is proven. For Cott, the effects were catastrophic. “What do I not remember?” he asks at the beginning of On the Sea of Memory. “The world as it was (the end of the Cold War, the Oslo peace accords, the abolition of apartheid, the massacre at Srebrenica). Who was born and who died … the films I saw or the contents of my favorite books read during the 1980s and 90’s … the six books and the magazine articles I worked on as well as the fourteen books I edited … meetings, encounters, and relationships with friends and acquaintances both at home and in various parts of the world.”

For Cott, as for me, the loss of memory was really a loss of identity. ECT can heal seriously depressed people who might otherwise have no hope of leading a normal, happy life. But is happiness worth losing your memory? Your sense of self?

Being without memory is more than mere forgetfulness: It is being set adrift on an eternal present, without trajectory or history. Cott’s book is subtitled “A Journey From Forgetting to Remembering,” but it’s not nearly so linear. The book is an odd combination of memoir, reflection, and interviews with philosophers, neurologists, and spiritual teachers. As Cott says many times, he cannot remember a paragraph once he has written it—and these lapses reveal themselves in Cott’s rambling style and his penchant, in the interviews that make up the heart of the book, for consulting his notes rather than engaging in dialogue with his subjects. It’s heartbreaking to see a once-gifted writer and interviewer so deserted by his craft.

At the same time, living without past or future has a transformative aspect. Living in the “eternal present” is, in many religious and philosophical schools of thought, a form of freedom. It’s what the spiritual guru Ram Dass means by “being here now”: Every moment is new.

I experienced this sensation during my season of forgetting. Since I knew that I was unlikely to remember the meal, or conversation, or film that I was enjoying, I grew to enjoy these pleasures more and then let them go. Without memory, I glided from moment to moment. Like the amnesiac protagonist of the film Memento, I kept copious notes and detailed to-do lists that enabled me to pretend to other people that I had an idea what was going on. Actually, though, I was quite lost. Each moment was a surprise. I had no choice but to trust, trust, trust. It became, almost, relaxing.

Like Cott, I lost my sense of self when I lost my memory—but that self wasn’t working anyway. I have no doubt that I am much happier now than I was five years ago.

By the end of On the Sea of Memory, however, it is clear that Cott would rather be depressed and himself than happy and unrecognizable. The Jonathan Cott of 1985 is lost forever; to him, it doesn’t matter that if he hadn’t undergone ECT, he might have been lost forever anyway. Cott worries about a time when, as in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, unpleasant memories will be simply washed away. (In fact, as one of Cott’s subjects observes, doctors are already doing this for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. Beta blockers are used to block the action of stress hormones and thus lessen the intensity of traumatic memories.) Above all, Cott is a humanist: He craves the memories, flavors, and formative experiences that make up his identity and tells us how, with the help of friends, he has tried to reconstruct what he has done, whom he has known. For him, forgetfulness is a form of extinction.

Mystics from around the world report “peak experiences,” in which a temporary suspension of memory, and of thought, allows experience to unfold in all its variety. Yet in every wisdom tradition of which I am aware, there is also a return. The Zen monk comes back to the marketplace; Moses descends from the mountain; Christ emerges from the wilderness. It is that moment of integration that is so ruthlessly denied to victims of memory loss. Like William Blake before him, Cott is right that the innocence of amnesia is only half of the truth. Without memory, there may be beauty, but there is no coherence; episodes, but no narrative. Pure “moments of being,” in Virginia Woolf’s memorable phrase, may be the closest we come to enlightenment. But then, as Cott well knows, there is the telling of the story.