My father has a phenomenal memory. Truly out of this world.
For example, he remembers the 10 best meals he ever ate (Meal #1: Zalacain in Madrid, 1971, he and my mother, Young Pigeon Salad with Apple Vinegar).
About 15 years ago, when I still lived in NJ, I picked him up at Newark Airport, obviously shaken. After I hugged him hello, he said, “That was one of the 10 worst flights I’ve ever taken.” (Meal #2: Arun’s in Chicago, to celebrate his granddaughter’s second birthday; Panang Beef Curry.)
He knows his 10 most awesome Scrabble words. [I’m lucky enough to get an awesome Scrabble word–to remember it is truly too much] (Meal #3: Indochine restaurant in Singapore; my father and his second wife; Spicy Chicken Breast Sauteed with Lemongrass, Asian Basil, and Peanuts.)
Look–he’s got a first-class memory; there’s no arguing it.
My mother’s memory is really more in the average range. She remembers–well, enough–and, when she transfers into her psychotherapist mode, her memory becomes truly prodigious.
But she can forgive herself for the details that escape her, especially as she passes through her 60. Such forgetting, she assures me, is the fault of a benign illness with which we’re both afflicted, known, she claims, as CRS-disease–and, as such, all is well. (We’re a family blog here, so let me just hint at the origin of the name of this illness that she and I suffer from–it’s ‘Can’t Remember S….’ disease.’) (Meal #4: Boathouse Wine and Grill in Phuket; Trilogy of Rock Lobster in Green Curry Sauce, Armagne sauce, and Thermidor.)
My brother? I’d put him in the average category, too, in terms of memory–and hope he forgives me in case he perhaps thinks he’s a world-class rememberer. I’ve graded him a B-. But–to be fair–he has two young children–and that can knock out the memory capacities–and many other abilities, as well–of even the best of us.
So you’d think, looking at my genetic hand-off, that I’d at least be in the playing field.
You’d think totally wrong.
My memory is so poor that it takes a truly momentous event to even find its way to my memory bank–and, when it does so, it takes nothing with it. I have random, extreme events that make up my memory, unhinged from narrative, just flashes in the darkness that is my past. (Meal #5: Del Frisco’s in New York, meeting one set of in-laws; Broiled Lobster Tail–they carve it table side and serve it with drawn butter and lemon.)
One clear example of how my memory kicks in only for a highlight is a family trip: brother (age 6), father, and I (age 8) were young. Now our father, who was a dedicated parent, but never picked up any of what he considered “maternal roles” like, say, cleaning up a child’s vomit (this matters, I promise), decided to take the two of us to see the most beautiful drive in America–California’s Route 1, around the town of Big Sur.
This is truly a lovely drive–or, really, so I’ve been told– with rocky cliffs and the wide view of the fabulous ocean, with twists and turns that bring the waves of turquoise blue to sudden view. Unfortunately, Dad, in selecting such a drive, neglected what had been a fact since my brother’s earliest days–he ran both to car-sickness and really to general vomiting, if the moment seemed ripe for it, or he’d over-eaten, or traffic was bad, or he preferred not to attend school that day.
So it was really no surprise that he’d been kvetching and moaning since we started the drive, threatening to empty the contents of his stomach. In a truly inspired moment, my father sought to ease the whining and general distress factor by purchasing my brother a Strawberry Crush. I’m certain this makes sense to someone somewhere.
Let me spare you the build-up, but suffice it to say that within the hour, my brother had puked out what seemed many more than 12 ounces of Strawberry Crush, a bright, clear, upchuck, more or less right into his lap–wave after wave of foamy red fluid. And my father, who (those of you who have recall may recall) was not the ‘cleaner’ type, left the waves of vividly bright vomit in the seat, brushed off my brother and shoved him in the front seat–and I….
Well I have a single memory of traveling Route 1. I can’t recall the ocean–and and I have no image of any cliffs. I am left with the memory of sitting very near–if not exactly in–Strawberry Crush vomit. (Meal #6: Abend-Restaurant Feuervogel in Vienna. It was his first trip with his second wife to Vienna, where they stopped for–of course!–Russian food; Veal Stew in Beer Sauce with Dumplings).
- Now–I’ve always felt badly about how I remember (or fail to remember)–most parts of my life, and end up stuck with the Strawberry-Crush-puke isolated images. I was thus both intrigued–and relieved–by a new study in April’s Journal of Neuroscience, with a title that manages to illuminate very little–but sounds very ‘neurosciencey’: “Rap1 signaling prevents L-type calcium channel-dependent neurotransmitter release.” Aha, you say. Clear as mud.
Truthfully, even the abstract is pretty out-there, but what I do get from it is the knowledge that my CRS disease has a biological cause–it isn’t my fault at all. In bipolar disorder, the part of the brain that is in charge of storing memory is actually smaller than in the average brain, which, clearly, makes formation of memory–especially long-term memory–a challenge. (Meal #7: El Mercado in Buenos Aires, a working meal; Pink Salmon, Lentils and Grilled Tomato Vinaigrette Asados y Albahaca).
Schizophrenics get a break, too, if they’ve been spending their whole lives fearing they’ve got CRS disease. Because the new study finds that Rap1, which is a protein that seems not to have made itself terribly popular in the mental health world thus far, plays a role in the brain in forming long-term memories–and, lo and behold, it’s MIA in the brains of those with bipolar and schizophrenia.
Turns out that, when Rap1 isn’t there, certain neurotransmitters are blocked from release. Apparently this protein controls what are called L-type calcium channels. In another article, this one from PLOSOne, whose title I really like for its touch of obscurity, “Retrieval of context-associated memory is dependent on the cav3.2 t-type calcium channel,” the authors write, in a further vague way, “various L-type calcium channels have been demonstrated to be important in different forms of memories.” You know, it may not explain everything–but it’s good enough for me–and it’s starting to make sense. (Meal #8: [Although it’s true, that naming the same place twice seems to be cheating, I still hold that the feat of memory is so astounding, my Father gets a pass if he wants to claim that two of his top meals occurred at the same restaurant nearly a decade apart.] Arun’s in Chicago, long before his granddaughter was a glimmer in anyone’s eye. Sea Scallop with Kobocha Chili.)
The researchers theorized that Rap1 was intimately involved in activating these L-type calcium channels. So, playing God on a mini-scale, they withdrew the RAP1 and found that the L-type calcium channels were more constantly active, and–more importantly–more abundant at brain synapses, which in turn allowed for the increase of the release of certain neurotransmitters. The researchers’ experiment showed for a fact that Rap1 is, indeed, in charge of suppressing the L-type calcium channels, which, in turn, enables them to activate only at the ‘right’ moments, which–and here’s where the big moment for CRS disease comes in–the scientists posit, just may be during formation of long-term memory.
Lacking Rap1, which Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge, dismissively terms a “small cytosolic protein” (I know, I know, ‘cytosolic’ just refers to the liquid part of the cell, so stay cool), long-term memories simply are not made.
(Meal #9: Razmataz in Amsterdam, there for a convention, but snuck away for a meal with his wife. Divine, he said, he’d recommend to anyone: the Terrine aux Legumes Confits Et Au Pistou.)
And I know full-well what happens instead. A week-long trip to visit an aunt, who takes us to the shore and plies us with candy, a trip that ends with a spectacular ride down a coastal route with sapphire waves whipping cliffs that seem to drop off into netherland. . .it becomes condensed into several–long–hours in a car, watching vomited pinkish mini-waves of bile, high fructose corn syrup, and what had to be serious amounts of red dye 40 creep towards my side of the car, hoping against hope they won’t reach me.
(Meal #10 was for my 30th birthday at the local Shallot’s Bistro. Asian BBQ Steak: Grilled ribeye steak, served with stir fry vegetables and sweet pommes frites, finished with Asian sauce, scallions and wonton crisp.) I can’t recall what I had at my party–and actually can’t recall much about the event at all. Ok, let’s be honest: I don’t recall anything about it, if we’re talking about events or happenings–what I do remember is that my whole family made it–I can picture my brother gesturing rather wildly to my sister, who seemed half-engaged, and various parental figures, my father with his eyes closed, grabbing a quick snooze between the meal and dessert, my mother gesticulating, excited about her bird-sighting of the day, my step-mother politely nodding, my step-father smuggling a book under the table. . .
Look. . .I have CRS disease, I’m lacking the Rap1 protein, I don’t remember major events in my life. . but:
- I’ve got an awesome family who makes my life livable,
- My father’s memory is so phenomenal that I don’t really have to remember–he’s covered my share of the memory-allotment,
- If I get anxious and bored, my father and I can run through his 10 worst flights, just to pass time,
- Now that they’ve found the problem with long-term memory formation, surely they’ll have a solution–within the next few centuries, AND
- I really can’t complain about anything, because as a little girl, I reached San Simeon unscathed, after spending hours with a pool of encroaching pink soda vomit.