Dan Winters for Reader's Digest
A few months before she died, my grandmother made a decision. Bobby, as her friends called her, was a farmer’s wife who not only survived World War II but also found in it justification for her natural hoarding talent. So she kept old envelopes and bits of cardboard cereal boxes for note taking and lists. She kept frayed blankets and musty blouses in case she needed material to mend. She was also a meticulous chronicler. She kept albums of photographs of her family members. She kept the love letters my late grandfather sent her while he traveled the world with the Merchant Navy.
Yet in the months leading up to her death, the emphasis shifted from hoarding to sharing. Every time I visited, my car would fill with stuff: unopened cartons of orange juice, balls of fraying wool, damp antique books. The memories, too, began to move out. She sent faded photos to her family and friends, as well as letters detailing some of her experiences.
On the afternoon of April 9, she posted a letter to one of her late husband’s friends. In the envelope, she enclosed snapshots of my grandfather and his friend playing as children. “You must have them,” she wrote. It was a demand but also a plea, perhaps, that these things not be forgotten when, a few hours later, she slipped away in her favorite armchair.
Saving Your Mind
T he hope that we will be remembered after we are gone is both elemental and universal. Poet Carl Sandburg captured this feeling in his 1916 poem “Troths”:
Yellow dust on a bumblebee’s wing,
Grey lights in a woman’s asking eyes,
Red ruins in the changing sunset
I take you and pile high the memories.
Death will break her claws on some
Since the first paintings were scratched on cave walls, humans have sought to confound the final vanishing of memory. Oral history, diary, memoir, photography, film, and poetry: They’re all tools in our arsenal in the war against time’s whitewash. Today, we bank our memories onto Internet servers. There’s the Facebook time line that records our life events, the Instagram account on which we store our likeness, the Gmail inbox that documents our conversations, and the YouTube channel that broadcasts how we move, talk, or sing. We collect and curate our memories more thoroughly than ever before.
If you could save the memories in your brain like a computer’s hard drive, would you? Soon, that could be a reality.
We save what we believe to be important, but what if some essential context to our words or photographs is lost? How much better it would be to save everything: everything we know and all that we remember, the love affairs and heartbreaks, the moments of victory and of shame, the lies we told and the truths we learned. If you could save your mind like a computer’s hard drive, would you? It’s a question some hope to pose to us soon. Engineers are now working on technology that will be able to create wholesale copies of our minds and memories that live on after we are burned or buried. If they succeed, it promises to have profound, and perhaps unsettling, consequences for the way we live, whom we love, and how we die.
San Franciscan Aaron Sunshine’s grandmother also passed away recently. “One thing that struck me is how little of her is left,” the 30-year-old tells me. “It’s just a few possessions. I have an old shirt of hers that I wear around the house. There’s her property, but that’s just faceless money. It has no more personality than any other dollar bill.”
Her death inspired Sunshine to sign up with Eternime, a Web service that strives to preserve a person’s memories after death. It works like this: While you’re alive, you grant the service access to your Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail accounts, uploaded photos, geo-location history, and even Google Glass recordings of things that you have seen. The data are collected and analyzed before being transferred to an artificial-intelligence avatar that tries to emulate your looks and personality. The avatar learns more as you interact with it, with the aim of better reflecting you after you’re gone.
“It’s about creating an interactive legacy,” says Marius Ursache, one of Eternime’s cocreators. “Your great-grandchildren will use it instead of a search engine or time line to access information about you—from photos of family events to your thoughts on certain topics to songs you wrote but never published.”
Sunshine says a service like Eternime “could change our relationship with death, creating truer memories in the place of the vague stories we have today.” The technology is in its infancy now. But even after it exists, the company could go under someday, and the people it homes would die a second death.
As anyone who has a Facebook profile knows, the act of recording one’s life is a selective process.
As my own grandmother grew older, some of her memories retained their vivid quality; others became confused, the specifics shifting in each retelling. Eternime and other services counter the fallibility of memory; they offer a way to fix the details of a life. But as anyone who has a Facebook profile knows, the act of recording one’s life is a selective process. Details can be tweaked, emphases can be altered, and relationships can be erased.
What if, rather than picking and choosing what we want to capture in digital form, it were possible to record the contents of a mind in their entirety? The effort would require three breakthroughs. Scientists must first discover how to preserve, nondestructively, someone’s brain upon death. Then the content of the preserved brain must be analyzed and captured. Finally, that capture must be re-created on a simulated human brain on which a backup of a human’s memories could “run.”
Are We Our Memories?
Research in this area is ongoing. The BRAIN Initiative is working to record brain activity from millions of neurons, while the Human Brain Project in Europe tries to build integrated models from this activity.
Anders Sandberg, a researcher from the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, wrote a paper in 2008 titled “Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap,” in which he describes similar projects as stepping-stones toward emulating the human brain. Progress has been slow but steady, he says.
Creating a digital record of a human’s memories is a different sort of challenge. “Memories are not neatly stored like files on a computer to create a searchable index,” Sandberg says. “Memory consists of networks of associations that are activated when we remember. A brain emulation would require a copy of them all.”
Beyond all the discussions about how we could save our minds, is that something any of us truly wants? Humans long to preserve their memories because they remind us of who we are. If our memories are lost, we cease to know who we were and what it all meant. But at the same time, we tweak and alter our memories to create the narrative of our lives. To record them with equal weight might not be useful, either to us or to those who follow us.
Humans long to preserve their memories because they remind us of who we are.
Could the true worth of the endeavor rest in the reassuring knowledge for a person that he or she won’t be lost without trace? Through our descendants, we reach for a way to live on beyond our passing. All parents take part in a grand relay race through time, passing the gene baton on and on through the centuries. Our physical traits—those eyes, this temperament—endure in some diluted or altered form. So, too, perhaps, do our metaphysical attributes (“What will survive of us is love,” as Philip Larkin put it in his 1956 poem “An Arundel Tomb”).
I ask Sunshine why he wants his life to be recorded. “To be honest, I’m not sure,” he says. “The truly beautiful things in my life are too ephemeral to be preserved in any meaningful way. A part of me wants to build monuments to myself. But another part of me wants to disappear completely.” That might be true of us all: We desire to be remembered, but only the parts of us that we want to be remembered.
Despite my grandmother’s careful distribution, many photographs remained in her house. These unknown faces meant a great deal to her in life, but in a curious way, they have become a burden to those of us left behind.
My father asked my grandmother’s vicar what he should do with the pictures; to just throw them away seemed disrespectful. His advice was simple. Take each photograph. Look at it carefully. In that moment, you honor the person in it. Then you may discard it and be free.