Is there a real me? If not, who is my soul?
In one of Oliver Sacks’ most famous clinical stories, he describes, Jimmie, a patient whose memory was stuck decades in the past. Every few minutes, his memory would wash itself clean, leaving intact the old recollections of youth and early adulthood, all the way up through his time in the Navy and World War II, to about 1945. He could describe in great detail all the events of his before that point, but everything after had trickled through the sieve of memory. After Jimmie tells Oliver Sacks that he is 19, and it is Forty-Five, Sacks relates in The Lost Mariner:
“Looking at the grey-haired man before me, I had an impulse for which I have never forgiven myself-it was, or would have been the height of cruelty had there been any possibility of Jimmie’s remembering it.
‘Here,’ I said and thrust a mirror toward him. ‘Look in the mirror and tell me what you see. Is that a nineteen-year-old looking out from the mirror?’
He suddenly turned ashen and gripped the sides of the chair. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he whispered. “Christ, what’s going on? What’s happened to me? Is this a nightmare? Am I crazy? Is this a joke?’- and he became frantic, panicked.’
Has Jimmie lat his soul? Or is his true self still there, evidenced by his old memories? But what does that say about his new experiences? Is he still himself? What about other cases, where people lose everything every few minutes, but also have lost their long-term memory? Who they were is gone…or is it?
Writers and philosophers and doctors have talked about memory as who we are. Bunuel said that “memory is what makes up our lives.” In Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he equates death with the complete loss of memory, and each thing we forget as a small death. Rushdie said, “We tell ourselves into being,” suggesting that our idea of who and what we are is a story we tell ourselves. This is very different from the old idea of the soul, a bodyless consciousness that fills up this mortal coil and leaves it when the shell decays. What if we learn things, then create an idea of who we are, where we end and other things begin, based on our senses. What if when we forget these things, we are forgetting a part of the story we tell ourselves, and thus, letting our soul leak out with our memory? What if the soul is not separate from the body at all, but an amazing creation from our organic hardware?
First let me say, that I don’t have an answer. I don’t want to get in a heated debate with anyone who thinks this is false. There is no proof and will most likely never be. If I know something is true, hey, let’s argue. If I believe something is true, then I am using the weapon of a feeling, an opinion, to fight another feeling. To me this is silly. But I do believe these beliefs should be debated. It keeps us honest.
I simply want to follow this train of thought and see where it goes. A few stops along the way:
Is forgetting a small version of death?
Are we simply the story we tell ourselves?
What else does brain damage say about the soul, as well as good and evil?
See you next week!
As always, any comments are welcomed, weather you disagree, think I messed up some facts, or are feeling bored, please feel free to let me know.