Michael Lemonick is as good as it gets in science journalism. He is a graceful, witty writer, who excels at telling stories that reveal science’s human dimension. He is also a meticulous reporter, who actually cares about these things called “facts.” We graduated from the same journalism school in 1983, and Mike became the go-to science writer at TIME when it was a media colossus. He reported on everything from dark matter and exoplanets to AIDS and global warming, and he wrote more than 50 cover stories. Now the opinion editor at Scientific American (for which he has also written lots of articles), Mike has authored seven books, most on astronomy and cosmology. His latest, The Perpetual Now: A Story of Amnesia, Memory, and Love, explores inner space, taking readers on an intellectually and emotionally gripping deep-dive into the mysteries of memory. It’s one of the best books on the brain I’ve read. Mike, who is speaking at Stevens Institute of Technology March 1 (in an event free and open to the public), answers a few questions related to his book. –John Horgan
Horgan: How did you come to write The Perpetual Now?
Lemonick: One day in, I think, 2012, a woman named Aline Johnson approached me on the street in Princeton, NJ, where I live. I recognized her immediately because we’d played in the middle school orchestra together--also in Princeton--back in the 1960’s. She evidently knew what I do for a living, because she asked me whether I’d heard what had happened to her older sister, Lonni Sue, a few years earlier. It turned out that Lonni Sue had contracted viral encephalitis, an infection of the brain, and that it had left her with both retrograde and anterograde amnesia--the inability to remember much of her past, coupled with an inability to create new memories to carry into the future. Aline wanted me to write about it.
Initially, I wasn’t convinced. Even as she was talking, the case reminded me of H.M., a man who developed these same symptoms in 1953, when his hippocampus was surgically removed to try and cure his intractable epilepsy. It was that event--and the realization that the hippocampus was intimately involved in memory formation--that launched the modern neuroscientific study of memory. But I’d read about H.M. in freshman Psych, in 1971, and I figured there wasn’t much new to say.
I agreed to meet with Aline and learn more, though, mostly out of politeness--and I learned that I was quite wrong. Unlike H.M., who worked an assembly line winding copper wire in electric motors, Lonni Sue Johnson was extraordinarily accomplished in several fields. She was a successful commercial artist; a talented musician; a private pilot; and a small businesswoman who ran not only her own art business but also an organic dairy farm. As Aline explained to me, all of these areas of expertise and experience gave neuroscientists a much richer variety of things to test, and that two teams were now working with her to do so.
That, coupled with the fact that the basic story of memory that H.M.’s case told has turned out to be too simple, as ongoing animal and human studies have shown. So the studies of Lonni Sue were likely to break new ground. I was hooked.
Horgan: Has Lonni Sue, the subject of your book, read it? Can she read it?
Lemonick: She hasn’t, and she can’t. She can read the words (she can also still read music), but reading an entire book, or even a feature article in a magazine, requires that you hold onto a lot of prior information as you go. By the time she got to page ten, she’d already have lost the train of the story. She did read a New Yorker article about her, which came out in 2014, but she couldn’t really follow it. Afterward, she said: “It’s very beautifully written. Just a lovely realm of vocabulary.”
Horgan: You seem quite fond of Lonni Sue and other subjects in Perpetual Now. Does affection or its opposite ever complicate your work as a journalist?
Lemonick: Good question. I didn’t know any of them beforehand, so the fondness emerged during the reporting. My primary goal in telling the story was to act as the reader’s representative, introducing them to Lonni Sue and herself, and to the family, and to her friends, as honestly as I could. If they’d inspired dislike instead of fondness, I would have conveyed that.
In general, though, I’m predisposed to want to like the people I write about, and that could certainly color my coverage. Recently, Luke Dittrich, the grandson of the man who unexpectedly robbed “H.M.” of his memory via psychosurgery in 1953 (thus launching the modern scientific study of memory), published “Patient H.M.” about what his grandfather did and how H.M.’s life unfolded after that. One of the most inflammatory claims in the book was that Suzanne Corkin, the MIT scientist who studied H.M. for nearly 50 years, destroyed all of her notes before her death a couple of years ago. This is something Corkin told Dittrich. I get the sense that he was predisposed to be suspicious of the scientists he talked to, and so was ready to accept that she’d actually taken this step, which is of course completely scientifically unethical.
But a large number of neuroscientists weighed in and said they didn’t believe it for a second, and that she was just messing with him. Having interviewed Corkin myself, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. She was a bit cranky with me (quite possibly because she was suffering from the cancer that would soon end her life), and I can easily imagine her telling a reporter something nonsensical just to see if he would bite.
To be clear, I have no knowledge of whether this is what actually happened. But it’s generally true that many journalists have predispositions that probably influence their reporting, nudging it away from total objectivity.
Horgan: Did working on it make you hyper-aware of how your own memory works--or doesn't work?
Lemonick: In some cases, yes. I’m convinced I have absolutely accurate memories about events in my past, both trivial (the time I fell and cut my head as a three-year-old and needed stitches) and profound (the assassination of JFK, the Challenger disaster, 9/11). Research on this book has made it clear that I should be suspicious--not about whether the events happened, but about some of the details, which research has show are often unreliable.
Horgan: How far is science from solving the riddle of memory? How far is it from what neuroscientist Christof Koch has called a Grand Unified Mind and Brain Theory, or GUMBAT?
Lemonick: I’m by no means an expert, but I get the sense that we’re a long way from solving memory. There’s plenty we do know--that removing the hippocampus, for example, devastates our ability to form new memories, and recall autobiographical memories of the past (as opposed to the memory of general facts). We also know that some kinds of memory--specifically, procedural memory, which is commonly called “muscle memory”--is processed in a different part of the brain.
But we’ve also learned that “memory” is far more complex, with many more sub-categories, than the early studies of H.M. revealed. “Familiarity” is one--you can know that a person or a situation is familiar, without having any idea why. Another is “statistical learning,” in which you unconsciously process and retain the statistical relationships between objects or sounds--that in language, babies begin to associate words that come close to each other more often than they would by chance. We also now know that procedural memory doesn’t fully depend on the hippocampus, but that having one helps. H.M. was able to learn a new skill (tracing a star while looking, not at his hand, but at the reverse image of his hand in a mirror). That was astonishing, and it overshadowed the fact he couldn’t learn it as controls with intact hippocampi. All of these subcategories interact with each other in very complicated ways that scientists have only begun to unravel.
And of course, if we’re far from solving the riddle of memory, we’re even farther from a GUMBAT, which necessarily includes memory
Horgan: One of your books’ fascinating insights is that if we lose our memory, we also lose our ability to imagine the future. Can you elaborate on that?
Lemonick: That’s actually the insight of the Canadian neuroscientist Endel Tulving, who noted that bringing up explicit memories of episodes in our past, we’re essentially traveling in time (mentally, that is). And because the loss of the hippocampus destroys our ability to pull up those autobiographical memories, it destroys our ability to do mental time travel. That explains why it also destroys our ability to travel mentally into the future--to imagine what we’ll do, specifically, tomorrow or next month or next year. We can no longer imagine the future except in a vague and general way.
Horgan: Theodore Berger, an engineer at USC, is working on an implantable chip that can allegedly restore or supplement the brains memory. Given what you’ve learned about memory, do you think memory chips are feasible any time soon? Will students someday upload calculus instantly into their brains rather than learning it the tedious, old-fashioned way?
Lemonick: Sounds like the “Singularity” to me, or at least a big step toward that. I think the Singularity is a crock, at least when people say it’ll happen in 50 years or whatever. This isn’t nearly so preposterous, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. It may well happen someday, but I’m not buying any stock yet.
Horgan: What about mind-reading machines? Are they on the horizon?
Lemonick: According to some breathless accounts, they’re already here--fMRI imaging that can tell if you’re lying or not, that sort of thing. But since I think we’re still a long way from GUMBAT, I think we’re a long way, as a result, from mind-reading machines.
Horgan: How feasible are technologies that can delete unwanted memories, as in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?
Lemonick: We already have such a technology. It’s called the human brain. Psychologists including Elizabeth Loftus have shown that they can implant false memories that feel utterly real in test subjects simply through the power of suggestion. This was pretty clearly what happened during the “satanic ritual abuse” epidemic of the 1990’s, when (probably well meaning) therapists convinced people, including children, that they’d been horrifically abused--except that it never happened. If that’s possible, it seems pretty clear that they could also erase unwanted memories through the same technique
Horgan: What’s harder to write about: the brain or the universe?
Lemonick: For me, it’s the brain, no question--but that might have to do with familiarity. I’ve been writing about the universe in some depth for more than 30 years, including five books. It was incredibly confusing at first, but I gradually became comfortable with dark matter, dark energy, neutrinos and all sorts of other abstruse stuff. You should ask me this question 30 years from now, when I’ve devoted an equal amount of time to the brain. Except by then I might have forgotten the details of cosmology. So never mind.