The limitations and caprices of our memories can be frustrating. Our memories are often feeble and unreliable; it seems that even when we carefully study a subject, in time it often slips into the crevasses of our minds, fading into obscurity or disappearing completely.
In normal circumstances, we have to labor hard to keep our storehouses of knowledge from deteriorating into shanties, bringing important truths back to light over and over by repeated study. But, every so often, abnormal circumstances offer us strange glimpses of hope for what our memories can really accomplish.
Guten Morgen, Papa!
One such glimpse came in April 2010, when a Croatian girl named Sandra Ralic emerged from a one-day coma—and baffled her doctors and parents with her sudden fluency in German. The 13-year-old girl’s parents said that she had only just begun to study the German language a few months earlier, and that she had not developed anything even approaching fluency. Her coma had left her no longer able to speak Croatian, so Sandra’s bewildered doctors and parents had to hire a German translator to communicate with her.
It’s easy to understand how the trauma Sandra sustained could damage the area of her brain that stored her Croatian language skills. But how was she suddenly able to communicate in German—vastly superior to what she could speak prior to the coma?
News sources said that, before Sandra’s coma, she occasionally supplemented her middle school German class by watching German tv shows with Croatian subtitles. On a conscious level, this is the linguistic equivalent of a guitarist deciding to learn Albeniz’s fiendishly difficult “Asturias” in his first week playing the instrument. But for Sandra’s subconscious, watching tv in German was far from fruitless. Some part of her brain had absorbed, compartmentalized and stored vast quantities of German-language knowledge, though she was not aware of it until the coma unlocked all of that information.
In a separate baffling incident in 2006, a 40-year-old Colorado man named Derek Armeto struck his head on the bottom of a swimming pool. He was diagnosed with a severe concussion, and to this day he suffers from some memory loss and a 35 percent loss of hearing. After his accident, Derek and a friend were sitting at a piano, where he discovered another unexpected consequence of the accident.
“As I shut my eyes, I found these black and white structures moving from left to right, which in fact would represent in my mind, a fluid and continuous stream of musical notation,” he said. “My fingers began to scale the piano keys as if I had played all of my life. I can’t explain the feeling of awe that overcame my entire being, although I can tell you the expression on my friend’s face was enough to put us both in tears. I could not only play and compose, but I would later discover that I could recall a prior played piece of music as if it had been etched in my mind’s eye.”
Four days after his accident, he asked his mother to accompany him to a music store. “We found the nearest piano as I asked her to sit next to me,” he said. “I began to play as if I was exploring some unfound treasure that had been locked up all this time in my head.” Derek left his corporate job shortly after to pursue a career in music. He now plays eight instruments proficiently, which he had no previous experience with, and he has sharply improved his skills on the guitar, which he had lightly dabbled with before his accident.
So, how is it that Derek was able to play with such sudden fluidity and mastery? He had actively listened to music for all of his life. All the time he spent listening to music and tinkering away on his guitar, his brain was absorbing and filing musical understanding away in his subconscious. He didn’t have ready access to this understanding until the blow to his cranium unlocked the vault in his subconscious where it was stored.
The Real Rain Man
Then there was the case of Kim Peek, a “mega-savant” born in Salt Lake City in 1951. By the time of Peek’s death in 2009, he was considered a genius in 15 different subjects, from music to history, and from literature to dates. He could read two pages at a time—one with his right eye and one with his left eye. He would devour an entire book in about an hour, and comprehend and remember virtually everything recorded in its pages. Forever.
One article in the Times newspaper said Peek could accurately recall the contents of no fewer than 12,000 books, and he had 9,000 entire books completely committed to memory. When quizzed on what he read, Kim could pull a fact from his mental archives as quickly as any search engine can mine the Internet.
But there was a problem. Even though Peek knew a staggering amount, he could not function socially or take care of himself. He never learned to button his shirt, and he could only walk in a sidelong fashion. The fascinating story of Kim’s uneven brain was the inspiration for the Oscar-winning film Rain Man.
What explains Kim’s astounding memory capacity? He was born without the bundle of nerves that links the two hemispheres of the brain together, and scientists believe his brain forged unusual neural pathways to compensate for the absence of this nerve-bundle.
So, the question is this: Are all of our brains capable of the astounding abilities Kim’s had? If so, how can we tap into this potential? Could we enjoy the advantages of his condition without suffering the crippling limitations that came along with it? These kinds of questions baffle scientists.
For possible answers, let’s look instead to the Being who created the human mind.
The Creator designed our minds and brains so that, in normal circumstances, we can’t easily access the information we encounter unless we have repeatedly and fastidiously studied it. Apparently, God wants to see which kinds of information we are willing to labor for diligently in order to keep it at our fingertips.
The Apostle Paul acknowledged this reality, saying that he and his fellow Hebrews needed to “give the more earnest heed” to the truths God was revealing to them. Why? “Lest at any time we should let them slip” (Hebrews 2:1).
Elsewhere, Paul wrote, “[Y]ou are saved, if you keep in memory what I preached unto you …” (1 Corinthians 15:2). That’s an enormous “if.” It says a Christian’s salvation depends on his laboring to “keep in memory” the truth. These admonitions would not be necessary if we could hear or read a truth only once and have it permanently etched into our memory.
God’s desire is for people to work to develop holy, righteous character. One way we can do that is through consistent and disciplined study. Some people—even fairly ordinary ones—are blessed with impressive intellectual abilities. But a willingness to labor at learning God’s Word is far more important to Him and His purpose for us. Character trumps intellect any day of the week.
Rare cases like those of Sandra, Derek and Kim suggest that the human mind is far more impressive than most understand. The late Herbert W. Armstrong wrote extensively on the potential of the human mind and memory, explaining that its staggering capacity is made possible by a spirit component the Creator God built into it. A person “sees, hears and thinks through his physical brain and the five senses,” he wrote in The Incredible Human Potential. But it is “the spirit in man” that “imparts the power of physical intellect to the physical brain, thus forming human mind,” he wrote. Based on thorough study of Ecclesiastes 12:7, Job 32:8 and other biblical passages, Mr. Armstrong came to see that this “spirit in man” records every shred of information perceived by the senses throughout a person’s lifetime: “[T]his spirit records every thought—every bit of knowledge received through the five senses. … All memory is stored in this spirit computer. … [M]emory is recorded in the human spirit, whether or not it also is recorded in the gray matter of brain.”
It is because God gave people this “spirit in man” that our brains have such a staggering capacity to absorb, compartmentalize and store the information our senses perceive. The majority of what our minds store, we don’t have ready access to right now—but every word we’ve ever read or heard is warehoused there. Every syllable we’ve ever uttered, and every note we’ve ever heard is on file behind our quiet eyes.
And a time is on the horizon, potentially for each one of us, when real life will begin (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-58). At this time, it is likely that we’ll be handed the keys to unlock our memories, and be able to swim freely through the oceans of knowledge within them. When this resource is tapped, we will have the benefits that cases like Sandra, Derek and Kim give us a glimpse into, with none of the limitations they suffered.
We should educate ourselves carefully, read voraciously, and keep from succumbing to frustration about our presently feeble memories. Because one day, the vault doors may well swing wide open.