Photographic Heart

The vast majority of my childhood memories for some reason take place in the summer. Images of beaches, sun-filled dusty landscapes and sunsets that all look very similar to each other but actually took place on different places, different years, often merging with each other into one beach, one sunset, one ocean. I sift through them in my head usually by colour first, choosing either beach, sea, sky or something green to “browse” on. Then details begin to emerge, usually a close family person, though they tend to be off centre, sometimes even cut off, like a picture of a beach that you took, only finding after you developed the film that a stranger or a seagull had photobombed it. A dark fuzzy cloud lingers at the corner of the picture that is usually someone’s head, elbow, or the beak of a seagull. Sometimes strangers in these pictures gradually become a part of your family over the years, as you revisit old albums and you see them again and again. “that kid with the ball”. “That woman that came to my party who I never spoke to”.

I’m not exactly a “mental map” type of person. My mother has the privilege of that gift in our family, capable of remembering years and events in relation to each other. You mention one memory or event to her, and by knowing what happened immediately before or after it, within seconds she is able to pinpoint the time of year. Next thing you know she is beginning to zone into the actual date. 

More rare cases of this extraordinary gift skip all the detective work altogether and get straight to the meat: they actually have a virtual rolodex in their head, with year numbers and dates that apparently “light up” within a 3-D mental map that they hold in their brain. These are people that have the brain of a computer. Or should I say videocamera. From Wikipedia: “As of April 2016, there are an estimated 60 confirmed cases of hyperthymesia worldwide. People with the syndrome have an unusual form of eidetic memory to remember as well as recall any specific personal events or trivial details, including a date, the weather, what people wore on that day, from their past, almost in an organized manner.”

Sadly, all I have in my brain is a few headline categories: beach, horizon, sky, random elbows and seagull limbs photobombing my favourite pictures. Reading more about how our memory works, it became apparent to me that there are different ways in which people remember. Some of us apparently remember from the heart. Obviously, nature has made us all different so that we can all remember different things, and contribute different types of vital intelligence back to our “tribe”. Bees and other insects, with a much smaller brain than ours, have a mental map of hundreds, possibly thousands of flowers and plants in the surrounding meadow, so that they know where to get the pollen. Not only that, their memory includes the flowering time of each flower, so that they can arrange exactly when they visit each one in order to get there first before other bees, and harvest the flower in its prime time. Think of it as an Outlook Calendar but driven by artificial intelligence. Or as Santa Claus on his big Christmas present delivery night. You get the picture.

In Brazil there is a penguin with the most extraordinary memory. His name is Jinjing. For the last several years, Jinjing travels 5,000 miles every June to visit the fisherman who saved his life, rescuing him from an oil spill and feeding him fish for 11 months until he got stronger. Somehow, the penguin finds the way back to the fishing village, where he spends exactly 6 months every year, literally living in the fisherman’s home until he leaves for his breeding grounds again. There are multiple similar stories of animals displaying extraordinary emotional as well as rational intelligence. Stories that defy the human-centric, bio-chauvinistic views we hold about the living planet that surrounds us, and which we constantly look down upon.

Yet here we are, living in societies where we are constantly in denial of our own natural mental superpowers, our abilities to connect with our world in more ways than one, in ways that we refuse to explore as we rely more and more on technology instead. We are outsourcing our ability to remember, to sense, to feel. To put our hand on our heart and remember, feel what a long gone relative must have felt sitting on this same rock looking at the sunset. What a loved one may be feeling right at this moment in their hospital bed, thousands of miles away. 

In this world of the artificial intelligence bee, the loyal Jinjing, in this world of miracles, why does all of this still sound to us so “supernatural”? 

We have been trying to invent the most efficient solar panel, when nature invented it billions of years ago: the molecule of chlorophyl looks literally like a magic wand, with an emerald-green magnesium crystal at its centre. Every time the tip of the wand is hit by a light photon from the sun, the wand resonates and vibrates like a tuning fork, sending electrons jumping down its shaft. The electrons act like water going through a watermill, or air through a wind turbine. They charge the cell’s battery, called the ATP molecule. It is the same exact battery that all living things use, plants and animals. And surprisingly it has not been patented by Elon Musk. Yet.

But then again this is not how a scientist would remember photosynthesis. Some of us have a hyperthemisic memory. Others have a photographic memory. I think I’m more like Jinjing. I have a photographic heart.

To be continued …(or not)

George is a chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , join his mailing list, or read his books:

3 thoughts on “Photographic Heart

  1. Wow. I have reread many sections. You have given me a full circle of several thinking genre. Your writing tests me….I love the way I am able to think differently with each paragraph, with each writing piece…..Hemingway, Wright, Camus, Coehlo, Kincaid, Tartt, Whitehead, Tsakraklides….the list of great writers goes on, with great thinking. Peter

    Sent from my iPhone

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