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Do We Actually Remember Everything?

Neuroscience evidence suggests that our real problem isn’t with remembering things but finding our memories when we need them

In “Accelerating Neuroplasticity,” our second podcast with neuroscientist Yuri Danilov, he and Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks discuss how natural brain healing can be accelerated using stimulation.

Note: The first podcast, which deals with age-related in the brain and preventing the preventable ones, is here; some excerpts are here. The excerpt below focuses on memory:

03:23 | Do we actually remember everything?

Yuri Danilov: [Pioneer neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield] also discovered another interesting thing, that we, for example, remember everything and that memory is a question of extracting information. Not recording information.

The brain does not have pain receptors so you can do surgery on the brain and talk with the person.

Robert J. Marks: That’s creepy, yes, but…

Yuri Danilov: To find the right area in the brain and make the right incision, you have the mark the field because the brain is customized for each skull so each person has slightly different physical borders in slightly different areas of the brain. So they use a slight stimulation of the electrodes and in talking with the patient, they mark the borders.

And suddenly [in one of Penfield’s famous cases], the patient started to talk an unknown language. He was a smart guy and he asked for a tape recorder and they recorded, for several hours, they recorded the speech of the patient (it was a woman).

When they asked her, she didn’t have any degree; she was a housewife all her life and she never had a chance to learn any languages. When they wrote to experts, they discovered that she spoke ancient Greek, the language of Homer. When they started to dig into her biography, they discovered that when she was a girl, between ten and twelve years, if I remember correctly, she was housekeeping in the house of an ancient Greek professor who liked to recite Homer in the ancient Greek language.

Robert J. Marks: Oh my goodness. So she did learn it.

Yuri Danilov: She didn’t learn it specifically. She passively learned it. And she basically recited Homer, she basically recited this poem. So then the idea appeared as to what the memory is and how it is organized, that we actually remember everything. …

05:43 | Photographic and eidetic memory

Robert J. Marks: I’ve heard of that. I’ve heard that the subconscious — I don’t know if this is true or not, that you retain most of what you see and hear, about how people with photographic memories. I don’t know if we all have that at some subconscious level but this example that you are talking about indicates that that might be the case.

Yuri Danilov: We talk about different kinds of memories but I bet you have never heard of “eidetic” memory. It was an interesting case; kids quite frequently have this memory. They remember pictures in detail. You can ask a few days later about this picture and they are capable of recreating the picture inside and look for this detail if you ask them to.

Robert J. Marks: Yes, you see this in movies where they take a witness and hypnotize the witness in order to go back to the crime scene. I mean, to try and remember details. So there is something to that then. t

Yuri Danilov: Yes.

Robert J. Marks: Getting back to Phineas Gage, he had this bar go through his cheek and out on the other side of his head. You always hear that if somebody gets shot in the brain, they are going to die. It seems to me that if a bullet went through that same path, he would survive being shot in the brain. Is that true?

Yuri Danilov: Not really, no.

Robert J. Marks: We should try it as an experiment … (laughter)

Note: Phineas Gage (1823–1860) survived catastrophic brain injuries when he was 25 and the documentation of his case spurred interest in recovery from brain injury:

In 1848, Gage, 25, was the foreman of a crew cutting a railroad bed in Cavendish, Vermont. On September 13, as he was using a tamping iron to pack explosive powder into a hole, the powder detonated. The tamping iron—43 inches long, 1.25 inches in diameter and weighing 13.25 pounds—shot skyward, penetrated Gage’s left cheek, ripped into his brain and exited through his skull, landing several dozen feet away. Though blinded in his left eye, he might not even have lost consciousness, and he remained savvy enough to tell a doctor that day, “Here is business enough for you.”

Steve Twomey, “Phineas Gage: Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient” at Smithsonian.com (January 2010)

Claims made at the time, and repeated in many textbooks, that Gage’s personality changed dramatically have been questioned. One problem is that the claims are based on one source and few verifiable details of the personality of the previously nondescript railway worker existed. He made a living working with horses during the latter part of his life, not a job for a highly unstable person. He died during a seizure twelve years after the injury.

Further reading on neuroplasticity and the realistic hope for the healing of brain injuries:

Aging brains need exercise, not sofas for neurons. Neuroscientist Yuri Danilov reassures seniors, we do not lose neurons as we age. (This is Part 1 of Yuri Danilo’s discussion with Robert J. Marks. )

How the Injured Brain Heals Itself: Our Amazing Neuroplasticity Jonathan Sackier is a pioneer in non-invasive techniques for speeding the healing of traumatic brain injuries

If Thinking Can Heal, Why Do We Need Antidepressants? J.P. Moreland, who struggles with anxiety disorders, likens medications to engine oil for the brain

Mind-controlled robot brain needs no brain implant


The placebo effect is real, not a trick. But the fact that the mind acts on the body troubles materialists. Such facts, they say, require revision

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Do We Actually Remember Everything?