Mark vs Cancer

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Memory of Fish

Two straight posts about fish?

Not really. This one is about memory, but it was partly inspired by our resilient goldfish, Foxy.

Foxy came into our lives about two and a half years ago when some friends went on an extended trip and left him/her--how do you tell fish gender, anyway?-- with us to fish sit.

They never came back for him.

Fearing that Foxy would feel hurt and abandoned, we took him under our wings and tenderly cared for and nurtured him until one day we went on a five day trip and completely forgot about him. Upon returning home, Foxy was floating belly up in the fishbowl. I dropped some food in the bowl to see if he was really dead, and then left to find my little green fish net to transport him to his final ride down the porcelain express. But when I came back, Foxy was zooming around the bowl, lunging lustily towards his nibbles, making frisky little blooping sounds with his mouth. What a joker! Since then, I call him Resurrection Fish whenever I think about him, which, frankly, is about once every 2 months when his bowl, depleted to less than one-third its volume and coated with a murky green scum, needs cleaning.

That's when I pull out my trusty green fish net, chase Foxy around the bowl, dump him in a plastic cup with some water, and then proceed to de-slime his brackish environs.

How Foxy has survived this long, I don't know. (How long do goldfish live, anyway?)

Foxy and I don't have much of a relationship, but I am probably the second most important being in his very, very small world. The most important is Elizabeth, who feeds him everyday. I am second most important, because I am the deus ex machina that swoops down from the nether-worlds every two months, snares him in a green tractor beam and places him in solitary confinement. When Foxy emerges from this alien abduction, he is placed back into a world that has been cleansed every wit, even as if by fire.

The point is . . . what? I can't remember, which actually IS the point: remembering.

And now here is my profound thought: does Foxy remember any of this? In the midst of our little bi-monthly Master / Fish interactions, I sometimes think I can see some trace of anticipation in Foxy's beady little eyes when I lug his bowl towards the sink and produce the Green Wand of Mystical Powers. There seems to be a little more swagger to his swim, more purpose to his puckering, more flibber to his jibber. But in reality, I think I'm fooling myself, and I think that he experiences this infrequent ritual entirely afresh every time.

Perhaps this deep thought occurred to me because I had just finished reading a fascinating article in this month's National Geographic about memory. The well-written story bounced between analyses of the neurophysiologic basis of memory and the captivating stories of two real persons with extraordinary memory disorders. One woman, referred to as AJ, has the most perfect, photographic memory ever tested; she remembers, quite literally, almost everything that has ever happened to her. But to her, this is a tormenting phenomenon, as if the past is continually in the forefront of her mind, not allowing her to escape her ever-present regrets, mistakes and embarrasments.

The other person, a man known as EP, had the neuro pathways in his brain eroded by an bizarre infection, and now has absolutely no memory beyond about ten seconds. Imagine every ten seconds awakening entirely anew to the whole world, with no memory or insight into where you were or who you are . . . and not even the slightest awareness that this complete naivete was, in fact, abnormal. But EP, in contrast, is not tormented in the least. He appears quite happy, care-free, an unwitting Zen Meister living unencumbered by the past, unaware of any future, and entirely in the now.

These extremes of memory highlight the miraculous nature of that organ where we all live out our lives: the brain. In medical school, I remember a fellow student asking our neuroanatomy professor a "why" question about the brain. His response went something like this: "I cannot answer any 'why' questions about the brain. In this course, I will teach you the what, where and how of the brain. But for the answers to the why questions, you'll need to speak with a theologian or a philosopher. Because, frankly, I don't know why this miracle exists."

pounds of flesh. Three trillion synaptic connections. The home of genius and madness, of symphonies and psychosis, a computer, a soul, a muse, a miracle. The most powerful tool in all of creation.

I'm talking, of course, about Foxy's brain.


Tyler said...

I submit that second in the list of great, miraculous brains would be mine.

I was thinking about the human qualities that are both the miracle and the curse of our brains at church yesterday. A really neat young man with a mental disability in our ward gets really excited each week to see Max and to tell me something interesting he did the last week. He loves dinosaurs and robot-type things.

He told me about some kind of "robo-heart surgeon" that he saw or read about. I had a hard time understanding the details, but it got me thinking as to whether or not I would want Robo-Surgeon operating on my heart. I decided no, for the same reason I am uneasy with an auto-pilot landing the airplane I am riding in.

I know that with the right programming and sensors, a Robo-anything could do many things much better and safer than a human. But when it gets down to the subtleties of instantaneous judgement calls that could make or break me, give me the creative, impulsive insights of an imperfect human brain. I just don't think I could ever trust a Robot to do some things....

Maybe it is because I have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the Matrix movies and I know what evil and contempt for humanity lurks in the hearts of all robots.

Mark said...

If I would've read mt own link then I may have learned that Wikipedia teaches that goldfish have a memory of up to three months and can be trained to push a ball through a water maze or to activate a lever at certain times of the day in order to get food.

To which I say, baloney. Ain't no fish that can do that . . .

Ty, who would rather have doing your heart surgery, Robo Heart Surgeon, Foxy, or me?