Are we our minds? Or are we our bodies? I believe we are our minds and never our bodies. The body is disposable. The mind, with the right protections and preservations, can live forever. The brain is a container for the mind and the mind is a neural network of memories.

Those memories, both the learned and the innate, form a perception of us and others. When the container is unexpectedly corrupted — when the brain is damaged by injury or disease or psychic trauma — strange things begin to happen.

I have several friends who have had major trauma done to their brains through purposeful surgery and unexpected accidents. I have learned memory is a terrifying and tender thing. I also learned memories cannot be shared with those who have no neural tie into the memory. My limited understanding of traumatic brain injuries is the physiology of the brain, by design, forces itself not to remember any terrible injury because that trauma can be psychically repeated on a subconscious level and in wondering and in daydreaming.

The body reacts to impulses of the mind so it doesn’t matter if the injury is actually happening or not. If the mind remembers the injury the body reacts and that can lead to ongoing peril. You may have heard people describe a moment when they were in danger — a car accident, a stabbing, getting shot — and their world went into slow-motion. I believe that slow-motion corruption of real time is actively done by the brain in order to give the recipient of the trauma time to think and rationalize their way out of the situation while the event unfolds in slow motion all around them.

When the trauma is to the brain, that slow-motion gets clicked into erasure mode to entirely wipe away the moment threatening a life. You could think of it as the brain getting shaken — and erased — much in the same way an Etch-A-Sketch loses its drawing by shaking. The brain, the Etch-A-Sketch, is still there but is memories, its sketches, have been shaken away. The memories and the sketches are still there — they’ve just been re-organized in an unfamiliar way that may never be put precisely back into the same order.

Sometimes trauma to the brain is so catastrophic that the brain skips and its erasure of the event goes a bit too far backwards and the moments of protection are extended into real memories that are then erased and lost forever. Friends and family become strangers and existence awareness begins anew after recovery from the accident. That kind of memory loss can be devastating for friends and family but the actual event of re-learning a life that was in the process of being lived is an amazing cultural and intellectual query that bends beyond the scientific and breaks into material questions of who are we, what are we and what makes us human.

There are some religions around the world that point to that scientific memory erasure as proof of a cultural idea of reincarnation. The brain trauma wipes away evidence of the lived life in the moment before death so the new life can be reborn in another form without memories of the previous life. There are some — lucky or unlucky? — who are “born” into the same form — the same body and skin — beyond all medical expectation and they have to start all over with residual body memory but no mind memory.

That conflict between body and mind causes a crisis of identification and creates distress and disconnection from the present and a sense of being forever lost in an unrecognized body. The human mind is programmed to grow and learn in tandem with the body and when one of those elements pre-exists without the other, a new, ethereal life form, is created as sense and memory try to catch up with the hard-earned wisdom of the body.

I became interested in this topic when I read a paper by one of my graduate level medical students who wrote a scientific research paper concerning traumatic brain injuries. I began to wonder about the social and cultural disassociations that are created in the wake of a traumatic memory erasure. What must those who unexpectedly live beyond all medical reason think with their new minds when the only points of reference they have are provided by those who only knew their old minds?

What must it be like to live and breathe again while being forced to create a new cache of memories from the moment of re-awakening? What must it be like to wake up imprisoned in a body you do not recognize? It must be the most horrible kind of terror imaginable.

26 Comments

  1. didn’t know me or kids or wife even though we told who we were he didn’t believe but took us on word and we became friends again by me teaching poker

  2. That is a rough and scary situation, clem. It was kind of you not to press or require your friendship again but to ease him into it with cards. I am reminded of a woman I grew up with who had a similar brain trauma because of a car accident. Her entire personality changed.

  3. I have seen a very close relative of mine (one of my aunt) to lose her memory because of a fatal car accident that caused a severe brain injury.
    She lost her speech; couldn’t recognize her own son or husband – but interestingly enough the person she relied on was her mother (my grand ma), though she couldn’t recognize her too. She became like a baby. We lost all our hopes to get her back as a normal person; it’s because of her doctor and my grand ma’s enormous tenacity she reached somewhat close to her normal old self after 3 years.
    The first word she used was “my son?”
    She couldn’t say a complete full sentence almost for 3/ 4 months. Observing her gradual transition was a painful experience. She started walking like a toddler almost after a year.
    Now, she is doing fine but she cannot remember anything of that accident or the aftermath. The whole time frame is blank to her.
    I know one of my friends suffered from severe clinical depression for 3 years who happened to lose some of her memory. According to her, “it’s like I am reading a book and a few pages are missing…but I learnt to live with that.”

  4. Clem —
    She was aphasic for awhile — she did not speak — I think that is another brain protectant to push away the unfamiliar while the mind works to create a whole new context for relating with the world outside the body.
    She did not accept her family. She forged new relationships with her aunt and uncle who then chose to raise her. She spoke a difference language and learned many others – it was a “reborn talent” she never acquired before in her “first life.” She moved away and started in a new school with all new friends.

  5. KATHA!
    The story of your aunt reflects the story of the son of a dear friend of mine. He, too, was in a terrible car accident and remembers nothing of his life before his memory was wiped away. He had to re-learn relationships. He did not recognize his mother. He had to finally learn to just accept the people were who they said they were.
    It sounds like your aunt started her life all over again from learning to talk and walk. What an excruciatingly painful experience that must have been for her. She has a new mind in a half-used body. She has secrets to living, though, Katha, and I hope you will be able to find a way to tap into her reality and discover the secrets of the mind and body.
    Depression can also erase the mind in sad ways. I have a friend who is now heavily medicated to fight her bi-polarism and there are stretches of years she was alive but has no memory of what happened. It’s as if the body was in such a fight with the mind that only daily needs were met and the preciousness of memories — both good and painful — were shucked in order just to survive into the next day.

  6. It’s amazing to think of the reaction when my aunt first heard (her vision was also lost, temporarily though) my grandma’s voice after coming to her sense, she started crying like a baby. Before that nothing happened when she heard her son, husband or other close relatives’ voice.
    It was after 2/3 major surgeries she started getting back her five senses gradually. I remember my grand ma showing her old pictures of her childhood, school and wedding – I still don’t know how it worked but after seeing her wedding picture she asked about her husband and her son.
    How the brain works and connects with the chain of memory is still a mystery to me. My aunt was very hesitant and scared about the incident but after getting somewhat back to her old self her doctor wanted her to visit the same place (it happened in a city of Southern India) so she could overcome her fear and she agreed. But when she reached there it was a complete new place to her. She couldn’t remember a thing of it.
    My friend (who suffered from major depression,) happened to forget some part of her childhood and college life, which was one of her best period in her life and when she functioned like a complete normal person. In our course of conversation at times I could sense that she was not being able to relate a particular conversation and later she confessed that she forgot some parts of her life. Scary and painful, both. But my friend is strong enough to cope up with it.

  7. Thank you for sharing the amazing story, Katha. Your aunt is a remarkable woman. I admire her newborn tenacity to live a whole new life all over again.
    I feel for your friend. It must hurt her on some level not to relate to the same shared memories.

  8. Wow, some deep thoughts there David!
    I’m not really sure where to start with this, except to say that a friend of mine is due to leave hospital today, after being left in a coma by a serious accident in which she was riding passenger on a Harley. She was in the coma for less than a week, but we all quickly leanred that there’s much more to a coma than having someone look just like they’re sleeping. The Brain shuts off to the extent that the sufferer can’t remember anything as a way of healing itself. We were told that they wouldn’t know the extent of the damage to my friends Brain until she awoke.
    She’s now awake, but has no memory whatsoever of the accident, and didn’t recognise anyone around her. Slowly her memory is coming back – but of course, with anything like this, it takes time.
    We all talk about accidents and things like they’re just that. But something as traumatic as loss of memory due to an accident? I believe (and this is just my personal opinion) that we are our souls. Our bodies are a temporary home for a soul, so it can survive a lifetime on Earth. Nobody knows how many lifetimes they’re going to have. A soul, before it comes down to the Earthplane, will have made a chart with another Spiritual Being, who will be their Spirit Guide whilst on earth. On this chart is everything that is going to happen to them whilst living on the Earthplane. Things such as Accidents, memory loss, marriage, births, deaths, I mean I’m talking EVERYTHING.
    It’s beyond our comprehension to think why we would choose to have terrible things happen to us, because as humans, our emotions get in the way. We agree to have these things happen to us, because they’re part of our life path, and by working through them, we’re learning a Spiritual Lesson, and working to ascend to a higher Spiritual Level. This is done more or less subconciously. When bad things happen to us, people don’t think, oh, this is a lesson that I have to work through in order to ascend to a higher Spiritual level when my body dies. They think they’ve been dealt a bad lot and the “Why Me?” question begins to surface. Again, just a totally human reaction.
    I personally feel that a person with Memory Loss may regain some of their memory by having a Past Life Regression session. It helps to open that part of their mind that they haven’t used before. Memories that they didn’t know they had are definitely stored in there somewhere – it’s just a case of tapping into them.
    A great Subject David. I enjoyed reading it, and typing out my reply, even though it took forever lol. I’m not sure it’s totally coherant, but oh well, you should get the basics of what I’m trying to say. 🙂

  9. Hi Dawn!
    You are an amazing writer! Golly, I had to read your fine comment three times to appreciate the deep riches you stored in your story. Wowser! Thanks!
    These memory losses are more common than most imagine. The mind is a wonderful thing and a treacherous thing and those of us who are fortunate to have a brain that works reasonably well and is chemically balanced are luckier than they know.
    Your Past Life Regression therapy is awfully interesting as a way to give the sketches of memory a frame and a foundation for remembering.
    Your levels of spirituality are quite fascinating and I thank you for taking the time to explain them in a clear way we can all understand and appreciate.

  10. Lol, okay, so now I’m blushing. Thankyou so much for your kind words.
    My Spirituality is something that is quite recent, in that I only discovered Spirituality less than a year ago. I’ve tried my hand at various ways to get in touch with my Spirit Guides since then, including Meditation, and Automatic Writing. I’ve had a lot more success with Automatic Writing than I have with Meditation. In one session of Automatic Writing, I was given a message for my Sister, from her Son, my Nephew who died three years ago at the age of 20 days old.
    When he died unexpectedly at home, the entire family was devastated. One family member turned round and said “God Giveth and God taketh, but something’s wrong when God takes someone before their life has even begun.” At the time I agreed with them, but now, I believe that my Nephew was never meant for this Lifetime. He will either be reborn into a different lifetime, OR, he’ll stay in the Spirit Realm as a Guardian Angel.
    I passed on the message to my Sister, and I do believe it brought her some comfort in knowing that her son is still around and watching over her.
    Thankyou once again for your kind words David. It’s so nice to find someone else (apart from my partner) who appreciates my views.

  11. Hey Dawn!
    I appreciate you sharing your Spirituality here.
    I’ve never heard of “Automatic Writing” so I looked up the term and came away with these sites:
    http://www.prairieghosts.com/auto_writing.html
    http://www.crystalinks.com/automatic_writing.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automatic_writing
    The story about your Nephew is helpful! I believe the line between the dead and the living is but a thin veil and only some of us are able to peer through that veil and fewer yet are able interact with the other side.
    I absolutely appreciate you, Dawn! Your partner is one lucky man!
    😀

  12. Hi David,
    My brother was in a car accident when he was 16-years-old.
    He was a passenger in the back seat of the car on right hand side. The driver and the passenger on the left hand side were killed when the car when out of control while jumping a hill during a joy ride.
    My brother fractured his C4 and C5 vertebrae in the accident. He also suffered a mild head injury that pulled his scalp backward and left him very bloody.
    This probably saved his life, according to what I heard from my parents who spoke with the ambulance people. The people who had gathered at the accident scene didn’t want to touch him because of the blood.
    Some time after the accident, my brother told me what he saw in his mind after the car went out of control and crashed.
    He said he saw the Devil, but decided that he didn’t want to stay in Hell, so tried to get back to home. It wasn’t the “bright light” story commonly told by people experiencing near death trauma.
    It scared me when he told his story. It still frightens me to think about what it must have been to envision.
    I don’t know if it was a function of the impact and his neck being snapped, or if it was something else.
    My brother has recovered after several years of treatment and physical therapy.
    He walks and doesn’t seem to suffer any physical effects from his injuries due to the skill of his doctors, nurses and therapists.

  13. Thanks David,
    I’m not sure if he ever suffered any memory loss after the accident in 1986. I never detected any memory loss after the accident.
    He was in counseling for a long time after the accident, so it did impair his emotional state, as it would for anyone in similar circumstances.

  14. Please could you tell me if it is possible to have brain surgery in order to erase all past memories and start afresh? It sounds like a pipe dream but as an OCD sufferer with one big obsession I’d be very grateful for any information you have on this topic. I would be willing to undergo surgery in the name of research

  15. Very interesting concept. Very intriguing. However, the type of memory loss resulting from Traumatic Brain Injury is cognitive, skills, speech, etc. Not Amnesia. I base this observation on 2 years caring for my husband and months meeting other TBI’s while he was recovering in the hospital.Brain injuries don’t usually produce amnesia, but they do make the survivor like a newly born infant. My husband’s first smile was chillingly like my new born son’s first smile. It was his first response to my voice while still in coma. It was my husband’s adult male body, inhabited by a new born infant. Every mother recognizes the smile I mean. Quite frankly, it gave me the creeps.
    The re-learning of skills follows exactly the childhood path: 1st – learning to breath independently(new born), Toilet training, buttoning a shirt, tying shoelaces, first liquid foods, followed by pureed pablum diet, relearning how to catch a ball, forming words, learning what things are called, learning how to walk, relearning simple tasks like putting on underwear, brushing teeth, spreading jelly on a slice of bread, etc. All this relearning follows exactly the path from new born through toddler then early childhood.

  16. Thank you for your comment, Christine. We feel for you.
    Amnesia is memory loss:
    http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=2223
    Here’s an article referencing amnesia in traumatic head injuries;

    Post-Traumatic Amnesia in Closed Head Injury
    W. RITCHIE RUSSELL, M.D., D.Sc., F.R.C.P.; AARON SMITH, Ph.D.
    Since the first systematic study of the significance of post-traumatic amnesia (PTA) in closed head injury, by Russell (1932), the findings of other studies have been consistent and in general agreement. A recent review (Smith, 1961) of investigations of the diagnostic and prognostic significance of duration of disturbed consciousness following closed head injury showed that all studies which had employed a definitive scale with absolute intervals had reported positive correlations between the length of PTA and the incidence of neurological signs and symptoms. In addition to providing confirmation of Russell’s original findings, the range of clinical features whose incidence showed positive correlations has been extended considerably.

    http://archneur.highwire.org/cgi/content/summary/5/1/4

  17. A distressing complication that may arise following a traumatic brain injury — pseudobulbar affect (PBA). Due to minimal awareness and knowledge of PBA in the medical community, PBA is often misdiagnosed as depression or part of the primary neurological disease when in fact it’s a separate, treatable condition.