Review Borges and Memory by Rodrigo Quian Quiroga

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“You, your joys, your sorrows, your memories, your passions, your feelings of self and free will, are in fact the combined behavior of many neurons and their associated molecules.” – Francis H.C. Crick – The Astonishing Hypothesis

Content Summary

We will examine Rodrigo Quian Quiroga‘s book Borges and Memory, talk about extraordinary memories based on Borges’s stories and try to understand the functioning of our memory.

Borges and Memory Price Comparison

AmazonMIT Press $29.99
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Writing a research book review is hard work. Especially if it is a shocking and comprehensive work, determining what to talk about and writing a review beyond the introduction is a really time-consuming process.

Rodrigo Quian Quiroga‘s seminal book Borges and Memory is the new candidate of this grueling process.

A photograph of Rodrigo Quian Quiroga

A photograph of Rodrigo Quian Quiroga

First of all, it should be noted: The book, which Rodrigo Quian Quiroga spent years creating and generously sharing his experiences with, is a must-read for anyone trying to grasp the human mind and therefore our perception of the world.

Funes The Memorious is first published in the June 7, 1942 issue of La Nacion. (I got it from book).

Funes The Memorious is first published in the June 7, 1942 issue of La Nacion. (I got it from book).

As the name suggests, there is a story called Funes the Memorious by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who inspired the book to be written. First of all, I recommend you to read the story to get a greater taste from the book and the review, but to summarize, Funes the Memorious is the one who cannot forget anything, remembers everything that he sees, hears, smells, touches, hears or feels; It tells the story of a person (Funes) who can record in his memory even details that healthy people sometimes do not perceive.

This gives Funes skills that can be considered miraculous for us, such as learning a language in a week or remembering every book he reads line by line. But this is also a great curse. A burden that makes it impossible for Funes to sleep, think and rest. Because of this load, Funes cannot do many things that healthy people can do easily.

A Photograph of Jorge Luis Borges

A Photograph of Jorge Luis Borges

The story of the writing of the book is as follows: Rodrigo Quian Qurioga, based on the character of Funes, thinks that the story proceeds in accordance with science. He discovers that Jorge Luis Borges is interested in the human mind and neuroscience. The conversations Jorge Luis Borges had with his wife, Maria Kodama, and the books he saw in Jorge Luis Borges’ personal library confirm this interest. Based on Jorge Luis Borges, he explains the functioning of human memory in the light of the data of science. In order to better understand this process, he makes use of recorded extraordinary life stories.

MIT Press Cover of Borges and Memory

MIT Press Cover of Borges and Memory

The book, which begins with legends on memory, is written in 77 AD by Piliny in the chapter on “Memory” of the 37-book Natural History series, known as the first encyclopedia in history, and says “From the Persian king Karesh, who remembers the names of all his soldiers, from Scipio, who knows the names of everyone in Rome by heart. ; From the envoy of King Pyrrhus, who learned the names of all Roman senators just one day after arriving in Rome; He mentions Mithridat Eupator, who dispensed justice in 22 languages spoken in his empire, Simonides, the inventor of the science of memory, and the Greek Charmadas, who could recite any book in the library as if he were reading it…”

An Image from Pliny's Natural History

An Image from Pliny’s Natural History

When we look at the stories, we sense that Piliny exaggerated and embellished some things, just as Evliya Çelebi exaggerated the places he visited. But the truth is that there are people who are similar to Borges’ Funes that we medically identify in the 21st century and far more extraordinary than the people Piliny describes in his Natural History.

These exceptions are special people who have left their mark on the history of neurology and neuroscience. Here we will include examples such as Solomon Shereshevsky, Henry Molaison and Kim Peek. However, it is possible to find more in the book.

Who is Solomon Shereshevsky?

Solomon Shereshevsky was the first person whose extraordinary memory was scientifically proven by the Russian psychologist Alexander Luria in 1920. Shereshevsky’s discomfort is not being able to forget anything.

Photograph of Shereshevsky (from book)

Photograph of Shereshevsky (from book)

Shereshevsky works as a correspondent for a newspaper in Moscow. During a meeting, the editor-in-chief sees that Shereshevsky does not take notes on what he should do and begins to scold Shereshevsky. Shereshevsky waits in silence and repeats the entire distribution of tasks and other details from memory, including those assigned to others. Shocked, the editor-in-chief tells Shereshevsky that he should go to the Russian psychologist Alexander Luria, who was just getting popular at the time.

A Photograph Taken During His Research by Russian Psychologist Alexander Luria (source)

A Photograph Taken During His Research by Russian Psychologist Alexander Luria (source)

As a result of the examinations, it is understood that Shereshevsky’s situation is more striking than it seems. It can record 70 different numbers or hundreds of randomly selected words, which have no semantic relationship, in one reading, without any errors.

Although he does not speak a word of Italian, he can recite lines from the Italian original of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

Che la diritta via era smarita

Ahi quanto a dir qual era e casa dura”

This man, who can memorize even such lines that make no sense to him, attracts Luria’s attention. 30 years of research on Shereshevsky begins. Luria explains that at certain moments Shereshevsky’s memory was frustrating and he insisted on finding something he couldn’t remember, but was unsuccessful.

Another interesting finding that emerged during this longitudinal research is that Shereshevkski could easily say these things that he had memorized for once, even when asked 15 years later, although he was not likely to be asked.

In fact, what enables Shereshevsky to do this is that he has a synesthetic memory. Synesthesia can be summarized as the mixing of the senses. It is not actually a problem of perception. A song that appeals only to a person’s hearing also triggers the eyesight, and therefore the person perceives the color of that song as blue or similarly thinks that the song has a smell.

Many poets and painters are known to be synesthetes. They are usually creative people. It is estimated that the cause of synesthesia is that the connections between neurons, which are abundant in our congenital brain, are lost in infancy, while in these people the reason is not lost in an unknown way. But the synesthesia in Shereshevsky is far ahead. Almost all the senses interact with each other. In an interview, she describes her experience with synesthesia:

“When I hear the word green, a green flower pot appears; A red shirt comes to my mind with the word red; blue means the image of someone waving a small blue flag out of a window… Even the numbers remind me of images. Let’s take the number 1. To me it means a proud man; 2, a jovial woman; 3, a sad person. I don’t know why like that. 6, a man with swollen feet; 7, a man with a mustache; 8 is a very robust man. It’s like two intertwined sacks. Coming to the number 87, I see a fat woman and a man with a mustache twist.”

Shereshevsky finds it difficult to engage in a deep intellectual activity due to these constant associations. It’s hard to believe, but there’s no bigger problem than forgetting. The memory in which he recorded everything, the memories he recorded with details, keep Shereshevsky awake. They try keeping a diary, writing and similar methods with Luria, but Shereshevsky still cannot forget.

Our brain is still a box about which we know very little.

Our brain is still a box about which we know very little.

Shereshevsky was very interested in this research being carried out on him. Therefore, the interesting findings about him did not end there. At one stage of the research, Luria asked him to keep the following numbers in mind.

Numbers Luria Asked Shereshevsky to Remember

Numbers Luria Asked Shereshevsky to Remember

Of course, Shereshevsky had no trouble remembering these numbers with his magnificent memory. However, he could not notice the sequentiality between them, despite asking leading questions. He could remember paragraphs accurately, but could not answer even a simple question that would implicate the paragraph.

Unfortunately, Shereshevsky’s incredible memory showed a very, very inadequate appearance in abstraction.

The unforgettable memories described in the book are not limited to Shereshevsky, who has a tremendous memory. Facts about very important cases in the history of medicine, some of which, like Henry Gustav Molaison, could not create new memories.

Who is Henry Gustav Molaison?

Henry Gustav Molaison is an epilepsy patient. However, his epileptic seizures are not at a level that can be prevented by drug treatment like other patients. That’s why Henry’s quality of life is so low. So much so that when he turns 27, these seizures become more frequent and Henry has to leave his job at the engine factory.

A Photograph of Henry Molaison

A Photograph of Henry Molaison

At this point, neurosurgeon William Scoville proposes an experimental intervention to Henry. It takes the hippocampus region, which is seen as the source of the epileptic seizures in the brain. The crises are coming to an end. However, a few months after the operation, it is realized that Henry cannot remember the hospital where he was staying, the hospital staff, the location of the toilet.

After a while, Henry can’t remember any of the everyday events. He can join the conversations, but forgets what was said after half an hour. He can solve puzzles with his old knowledge, knows the way to his old house, but cannot remember the way to his new house. Henry turns into a sick person, unable to form new memories.

Imagine that someone who constantly feels 27 years old sees the image of their 50s in the mirror every day and has to face this painful loss every day because they lost their mother after the age of 27.

Poster of the Movie Memento (Memento by Christopher Nolan can also be watched to better understand Molaison, who is suffering from retrograde amnesia.)

Poster of the Movie Memento (Memento by Christopher Nolan can also be watched to better understand Molaison, who is suffering from retrograde amnesia.)

With this unfortunate event that happened to Molaison, neurosurgeon William Scoville, who performed the surgery, spent his life visiting congress, congress and congress so that such an operation would never be done again. It was successful, but the surgery, although it had a sad story, went down in the history of neuroscience in many ways and turned into a unique milestone.

For example, it was known that the hippocampus was actively used to form new memories, but its full function was revealed. Yes, memories were not stored in the hippocampus, but the hippocampus played an important role in tagging events and sending them to long-term memory.

The Place of the Hippocampus in Our Brain

The Place of the Hippocampus in Our Brain (soruce)


Who is Kim Peek?

Another unusual memory described in the book is Raymond, whom we know from the Rain Man movie! Kim Peek in real life.

Kim Peek One of the World's Most Famous Savants

Kim Peek One of the World’s Most Famous Savants

Kim Peek is autistic with savant syndrome. Savant syndrome is a strange thing. It is used to describe someone with a mental disability having a genius-level talent in a unique field. To see an example, you can watch the video below by Stephene Wiltshire, who draws the view of the entire city at once.

(City Map Drawn by an Autistic Person in All Details) source

Kim Peek has even more interesting features than the person in the video. Lacks empathy or in-depth understanding. He even has trouble understanding the implicit meanings, but his memory is far ahead of the people that Piliny’s exaggerated in his Natural History centuries ago, something hard to believe.

“Kim Peek is able to recall everything he has learned in his life, in every detail.”

 What Kim Peek is missing is actually the ability to filter out stimuli. While a normal memory recalls the information in the book he read by filtering and summarizing, Kim Peek keeps the book in his mind line by line because he cannot filter the information.

Kim Peek, who gets angry at the improvisations or mistakes made by the theater actors because he knows the text better than the theater actors when he goes to a theater play, has another interesting feature: He can read two separate pages with his two eyes. Advances in brain imaging technology have proven this. On the contrary, many advances in neuroscience depend on the development of this neuroimaging technology.

Now, as we learned as a result of this development, How Does Our Brain Work? Let’s answer the question.

How Does Our Brain Work?

Let’s go back to the original quote

“You, your joys, your sorrows, your memories, your passions, your feelings of self and free will, are in fact the combined behavior of many neurons and their associated molecules.”

Human memory; The firing of neurons works with other neurons triggered by these firings and the molecules that this interaction is associated with. It is unclear exactly how this happened. However, researches reveal that each neuron acts in response to a certain information.

There is a neuron known as the Jennifer Aniston Neuron. According to the research, an individual is shown photos of dozens of randomly selected people, but since the individual only recognizes Jennifer Aniston among these photos, a single neuron movement is observed when only her pictures are received. The individual does not react to people he does not know or events that he does not know.

Therefore, it is almost impossible with today’s technology to accurately detect the functioning of our brain and to determine how associations are formed.

An Explanation of the Jennifer Aniston Neuron

An Explanation of the Jennifer Aniston Neuron (Source: Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, Leila Reddy, Christof Koch ve Ithzak Fried, “Invariant Visual Representation by Single Neurons in the Human Brain” Nature, 435 (2005): 1102 – 1107.)

Here’s what we know: Our brains expand with experience. Each of our experiences brings about a neurophysiological change in our memory. This happens when our memory filters what we have experienced and learned into a meaningful thought.

However, the savants we mentioned above are; Lacking the ability to filter, sort, classify, and generalize information, Funes falls into the misfortune and is forced to live in a hell full of details. So we understand that in the 21st century, what is more important than a good memory is the ability to abstract and generalize.

In addition to all these, a physiological intervention in a part of our brain or an unexpected interruption of this whole process by a lesion in a part of our brain reveals how interconnected and complex memory is.

General Evaluation

Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, who wrote the book inspired by the curse of Borges’s Funes, who has a great memory, of not being able to forget and not being able to erase details, explains that Borges was aware of neuroscience while building this character. He also proves it by accessing his library.

Explaining memory, which is a complex subject, in an understandable way with intellectual references, advice books or movies, the author manages to make the subject easy to understand and interesting despite its difficult nature, with extraordinary examples such as the fact that some of the brain surgeries are performed openly because there are no pain receptors in our brains throughout the book. .

It reminds us that the incredible memories that Piliny mentioned in Natural History, from the kings who knew the names of all the people in Rome by heart or who ruled in 22 languages, really existed. Beyond being a popular book, the book even has sections that I have reserved for use in my thesis, with primary sources and academic references.

All that has been said makes us excited, especially in the field of neuroscience, that we are at the very beginning of the road and that future discoveries can be made. For example, as he writes in a quote from William James in the book:

“Each brain cell has its own individual consciousness, and there is no record of this in other cells.”

The emphasis is being developed today with researchers teaching a single brain cell to play pingpong. In the future, artificial intelligence initiatives where brain cells are combined with technology are paving the way. We are officially at the beginning of the road and the future is full of incredible developments.


Review Borges and Memory by Rodrigo Quian Quiroga
  • Story
  • Fiction
  • Wording
  • Atmosphere

Briefly My Opinion

The book, which Rodrigo Quian Quiroga spent years creating and generously sharing his experiences with, is a must-read for anyone trying to grasp the human mind and therefore our perception of the world.

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