How Does Your Memory Work? (2008)

BBC Horizon

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Documentary Description

Horizon journeys into the human memory, from how it emerges in childhood, develops through to adulthood, and fades in middle age. You might think that your memory is there to help you remember facts, such as birthdays or shopping lists. If so, you would be very wrong. The ability to travel back in time in your mind is, perhaps, your most remarkable ability, and develops over your lifespan. Horizon takes viewers on an extraordinary journey into the human memory. From the woman who is having her most traumatic memories wiped by a pill, to the man with no memory, this film reveals how these remarkable human stories are transforming our understanding of this unique human ability. The findings reveal the startling truth that everyone is little more than their own memory.

Aired: Tuesday 25th March 2008, 9pm, BBC Two

Our memories are our most precious possession, forming our own unique view of the world. But what is memory? We think of ourselves as inhabiting our bodies, but are our recollections little more than an arrangement of cells in our brains?

Barney sits in a chair and recalls the day he was hit by a car: his back was broken, and his wife was killed. Although he can now walk, the pain of the memory is not so easily healed. So he is being given a pill to take the memory away... At the Douglas Hospital, in Montreal, a new understanding of how memory works is being applied to help treat those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s based on research that questions not just the nature of memory, but the nature of our identity.

Taking a remarkable journey through memory, this film travels from the womb, when amazingly first memories start to form as a child learns to recognise its mother, through to birth and childhood as genes drive the memory system to develop (and determine how well it will function); and into adulthood when, all too soon, memories start to dissolve away. Discover how and why in memory can start to unravel until, at death, a lifetime’s weaving of connections is lost in minutes.

Throughout the film, real-life reminiscences, from the experience of war time through to the loss of a family pet, show how memory is our most precious possession. But they also reveal something else: memory is not an ordered factual record but a chaotic web, one that is utterly warped and riddled with flaws. What is remarkable is that these flaws follow a pattern over our lifespan: it’s our biology – our genes – which drives our brains to remember one thing at this age, and forget that. And so, our identity – our lifestory – is stored as much in these flaws as in our memories. Above all, this film reveals the eerie magic of a fistful of cells in the brain which hold this web – the entire record of our lives – simply in the pattern in which they are arranged. So, do we inhabit our bodies or is everything that makes you ‘you’ found in the arrangement of a collection of cells. It conjures up a profound and uncomfortable question: is this all we add up to?

Producer: Annabel Gillings

Series Editor: Andrew Cohen

Source: BBC


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