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Borges and Memory: Encounters with the Human Brain

Borges and Memory: Encounters with the Human Brain

by Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, Juan Pablo Fernández (Translator), Mar?a Kodama (Foreword by)

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Imagine the astonishment felt by neuroscientist Rodrigo Quian Quiroga when he found a fantastically precise interpretation of his research findings in a story written by the great Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges fifty years earlier. Quian Quiroga studies the workings of the brain -- in particular how memory works -- one of the most complex and elusive


Imagine the astonishment felt by neuroscientist Rodrigo Quian Quiroga when he found a fantastically precise interpretation of his research findings in a story written by the great Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges fifty years earlier. Quian Quiroga studies the workings of the brain -- in particular how memory works -- one of the most complex and elusive mysteries of science. He and his fellow neuroscientists have at their disposal sophisticated imaging equipment and access to information not available just twenty years ago. And yet Borges seemed to have imagined the gist of Quian Quiroga's discoveries decades before he made them.

The title character of Borges's "Funes the Memorious" remembers everything in excruciatingly particular detail but is unable to grasp abstract ideas. Quian Quiroga found neurons in the human brain that respond to abstract concepts but ignore particular details, and, spurred by the way Borges imagined the consequences of remembering every detail but being incapable of abstraction, he began a search for the origins of Funes. Borges's widow, María Kodama, gave him access to her husband's personal library, and Borges's books led Quian Quiroga to reread earlier thinkers in philosophy and psychology. He found that just as Borges had perhaps dreamed the results of Quian Quiroga's discoveries, other thinkers -- William James, Gustav Spiller, John Stuart Mill -- had perhaps also dreamed a story like "Funes."

With Borges and Memory, Quian Quiroga has given us a fascinating and accessible story about the workings of the brain that the great creator of Funes would appreciate.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this meditation on contemporary developments in neuroscience and the work of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, Quiroga, a neuroscientist currently serving as Professor and Director of the Bioengineering Research Centre at the University of Leicester, relates his research into the cognitive structure of memory to Borges's literary exploration of memory in short stories like "Funes the Memorious." In "Funes," a story about a man who remembers everything (or, more precisely, a man who forgets nothing) but cannot understand abstractions, Quiroga discovers an analogue to neuroscientific research on how "neurons in the human brain that respond to abstract concepts… play a key role in turning what we perceive… into long-term memories." Quiroga leads an idiosyncratic tour through neuroscientific studies, case histories of "extraordinary memory" (including that of Kim Peek, the man who inspired Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man), brain anatomy, and contemporary theories about the neurophysiology of vision. As a work of popular science (not unlike the writing of Oliver Sacks at times), Quiroga's work is satisfying, though it is less successful as a work of literary criticism: his analysis of Borges helps us to understand how neuroscience works, but his analysis of neuroscience does little to help us understand how Borges works. 34 illus. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"Borges and Memory is as interesting as it is inspirational." — TimesHigher Education
Times Higher Education

Borges and Memory is as interesting as it is inspirational.

Product Details

MIT Press
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Encounters with the Human Brain

The MIT Press

Copyright © 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-262-01821-0


Most people, I believe, would find it difficult to guess what a scientist does day to day. The first image that comes to mind is of an untidy, chaotic person, always lost in thought, absentminded; someone alien to the surrounding, mundane reality, who does not realize if it is raining, if it is Tuesday, if it is a national holiday, or if his bus has just passed by; someone who spends whole days filling blackboards with theories and formulas in the search of a "Eureka," a discovery that will add a bit, however tiny, to our knowledge. But this expression of Archimedes is very rare in the life of a scientist. In fact, in most cases, even after years and years of research, such a moment never arrives. Isaac Asimov, the extraordinary biochemist and science fiction writer, once said that the expression that accompanies a discovery is usually not "Eureka" but "This is funny ...". In other words, this moment of ecstasy that should get us running naked through the streets of Syracuse may end up being just a moment of doubt, an initial enigma that will be resolved only after years of research.

What is it, then, that makes scientists wander about in a universe of ideas and experimentation? It may be the search for knowledge or, in more mundane terms, simple curiosity. Nagging questions; the pressing need to figure something out and the inability to do anything else until the answer is found; the tingling feeling that a discovery may be just around the corner; the intuition that a puzzle is starting to take shape, until eventually one reaches the answer and feels the thrilling joy of understanding.

One can then ask whether scientists, embarked upon their personal quests—their quixotic endeavors—spend their time just thinking. Not really. The life of a scientist is generally more humdrum and may involve repeating an experiment for the nth time to check the validity of a result, or analyzing data in a computer to extract some additional information. A sociologist may spend a lot of time planning surveys and analyzing statistics, a biologist preparing samples and dealing with pipettes, a mathematician varying systematically the parameters of a model, and a neuroscientist recording the activity of hundreds of neurons and crunching terabytes of data. This may sound somewhat boring, but if there is a worthwhile question lurking behind it, the routine becomes fascinating, and from those quotidian tasks the scientist weaves an elaborate plot to get ever closer to the answer of the problem that has resulted in so much lost sleep.

In my own particular case, this plot has to do with the functioning of the brain (though not the whole brain, since it is impossible for a single person to encompass the knowledge gathered in even a single branch of science). And in my quest to understand different aspects of how the brain works—and more specifically of how memory, the topic of this book, works—it is rare, very rare, to come by a "Eureka." Problems are usually left open, answers usually lead to further questions, and the final solution is almost always elusive. But perhaps our obstinate perseverance may be nothing more than the knowledge that, at least subconsciously, the pleasure is not in finding the answer but in searching for it. And without blushing I dare say that my search, shared with many colleagues, may well be the most interesting of all. Thus, beyond the fact that the human brain is the most complex and elusive mystery of science, the truth is that the quest to understand the brain is ultimately the quest to understand ourselves. And although we know fairly little, most of what we do know has been discovered in the last few decades. This is the ideal time to study the brain, just as the era of Galileo and Newton was ideal to study the motion of bodies and Maxwell ' s to study electricity and magnetism.

Nowadays we have at our disposal sophisticated equipment and advanced methods to analyze massive amounts of complex data. We also have access to information that we could not have dreamed of just a couple of decades ago. What was science fiction a few years back is becoming fact at a vertiginous pace. However, in our mad dash to understand ever more about the behavior of the brain we tend to forget that this search is not exclusively ours, of researchers with sophisticated labs, but has also been undertaken by many great thinkers: from the ancient Greek philosophers to the Cartesian rationalists, the British empiricists, and the nineteenth-century pioneers of modern psychology, along with other brilliant intellectuals who defy any categorization, like Jorge Luis Borges, who reached astounding conclusions guided only by his reasoning and his prodigious imagination.

It is not uncommon for a scientist to be interested in Borges, especially if (like me) he had the good fortune to study at the Faculty of Exact Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires (UBA). Deep and varied connections sprang out as we read about the aleph—the cardinality of infinity, studied in advanced calculus—about forking paths that lead to parallel universes—as in some interpretations of quantum mechanics—or about an infinite library that in the end turns out to have the same contents as a single "book of sand," whose number of pages is a continuum.

Like many others, I discovered Borges as a teenager and was fascinated by the mathematical precision with which he describes what defies every logic, with the way he starts from seemingly irrefutable premises—often reinforced by obscure or even blatantly apocryphal quotations—to lead us inexorably into unreal worlds as though we were hallucinating or dreaming, living in a fantastic realism where everything is possible and ideas rule above all else. Many years later I rediscovered a story of his, "Funes the Memorious," that had the perfect words to express the results of my research and which with astonishing clarity ended up sorting the pieces of the puzzle I had been working on. In brief, together with colleagues at Caltech and UCLA I was lucky enough to find neurons in the human brain that respond to abstract concepts, ignoring particular details. These neurons play a key role in turning what we perceive—what we see, touch, hear—into long-term memories that we will recall years later. When we generate memories we seek to abstract, to synthesize concepts. Usually we would rather not memorize details, lest we end up like Funes. And, just as in one of Borges's stories, there I was, the scientist, obsessed with trying to understand discoveries whose interpretation was already there, in a book written more than half a century before, a book that I had read as a youngster and that lay lost in my memory.

Carried away by the game of conceiving the plot of this apocryphal story—which, after all, is the story of this book—I imagine a Borgesian universe in which the main character is a monk in a monastery library—as in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose—reading a book that was believed lost; or a Persian vizier out of The Thousand and One Nights, finding his truth in a story told by a traveler; or perhaps a compadrito from the south of Buenos Aires in the early twentieth century who ends up challenging to a duel the songster who recites, with as much skill as little mercy, the verses he has long been searching for. In all these plots there is, I would say, only one way to continue the story: the scientist, whatever form he takes, strives to understand how the author of the lost book, or the traveler, or the strummer, chanced upon the answer to his question.

My search for further information about the readings or the facts that triggered in Borges the idea of Funes, his interest in memory and the workings of the brain, led me to contact his widow, María Kodama. Science is a discipline in which good luck often turns out to be as important as intelligence, creativity, and persistence. I had the good fortune that María took an interest in this parallel between Borges and memory, shared countless stories with me, and granted me access several times to the books in Borges's personal library. Just as in "The Circular Ruins" the man who creates another man in his dreams realizes that he himself is being dreamed by somebody else, I found, to my amazement, that, in the same way that Borges had perhaps already dreamed results like the ones I was lucky enough to discover in my research, other men before him—William James, Gustav Spiller, or John Stuart Mill—had perhaps also dreamed a story like Funes's. I have no desire to question Borges's originality (I am far from being the compadrito seeking a duel); rather I am an astonished scientist who wants to know better the man who helped him organize his ideas. Beyond the fact that the ideas behind "Funes the Memorious" had been circulating since the late nineteenth century or even before, no one can doubt Borges's genius in buffing them to perfection in a marvelous story.

Borges was not a scientist, but his passion for literature and philosophy led him to study psychology and the workings of the mind—and here I use "mind" instead of brain to highlight a more philosophical connotation. I took the opposite road: starting from current open questions in neuroscience I was led by Borges's readings to the foundations of psychology and philosophy. To peruse the books in Borges's library, as I did thanks to María Kodama's kindness, was like having an intimate conversation with him, from which I got an idea of his interests and started to grasp his thoughts. Almost without realizing it, I ended up exploring a terrain so ancient that it turned out to be novel. In today's scientific world, in which everything occurs at dizzying speed, where we barely manage to digest the information that reaches us, these encounters with Borges gave me a much-needed chance to take a pause to think in depth and debate (in my mind) with Descartes, Bishop Berkeley, and James. How misguided we scientists are when we think we are the first to deal with the big questions! We are simply sharpening and rephrasing the same questions that Aristotle asked himself more than two millennia ago.

This (anachronistic) search for Funes's roots and his relation to the principles of neuroscience is in fact the topic of this book, which started as a brief scientific paper that went through many drafts and at the end was left too brief, barely a sketch of an idea. Each pruning of the manuscript made it lose nuances to which I now hope to do justice. This is neither a book about Borges nor a textbook on memory; rather, it stems from my urge to tell a story that I find fascinating. The urge is such that I cannot do anything else until I finish; so fascinating that the book almost writes itself, as though I were narrating it to a friend with no knowledge of scientific jargon but who shares my curiosity and interest about Borges and the workings of the brain. I am not trying to force a link or suggest that Borges foresaw modern neuroscience. Neither am I attempting to overpraise Borges or judge him beyond his perfect prose and his extraordinary intuition in dealing with a topic as engrossing as memory. Borges is perhaps the catalyst that persuaded me to tell a story, a story that must inevitably begin with Funes the memorious ...

Kleve, August 2010


Excerpted from BORGES AND MEMORY by RODRIGO QUIAN QUIROGA Copyright © 2012 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Excerpted by permission of The MIT Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, a native of Argentina, is Professor and Director of the Bioengineering Research Centre at the University of Leicester.

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