The virus struck with freakish precision. The medial temporal lobes—there's one on each side of the brain—include an arch-shaped structure called the hippocampus and several adjacent regions that together perform the magical feat of turning our perceptions into long-term memories. The memories aren't actually stored in the hippocampus—they reside elsewhere, in the brain's corrugated outer layers, the neocortex—but the hippocampal area is the part of the brain that makes them stick. EP's hippocampus was destroyed, and without it he is like a camcorder without a working tape head. He sees, but he doesn't record.
EP has two types of amnesia—anterograde, which means he can't form new memories, and retrograde, which means he can't remember old memories either, at least not since 1960. His childhood, his service in the merchant marine, World War II—all that is perfectly vivid. But as far as he knows, gas costs less than a dollar a gallon, and the moon landing never happened.
AJ and EP are extremes on the spectrum of human memory. And their cases say more than any brain scan about the extent to which our memories make us who we are. Though the rest of us are somewhere between those two poles of remembering everything and nothing, we've all experienced some small taste of the promise of AJ and dreaded the fate of EP. Those three pounds or so of wrinkled flesh balanced atop our spines can retain the most trivial details about childhood experiences for a lifetime but often can't hold on to even the most important telephone number for just two minutes. Memory is strange like that.
What is a memory? The best that neuroscientists can do for the moment is this: A memory is a stored pattern of connections between neurons in the brain. There are about a hundred billion of those neurons, each of which can make perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 synaptic connections with other neurons, which makes a total of about five hundred trillion to a thousand trillion synapses in the average adult brain. By comparison there are only about 32 trillion bytes of information in the entire Library of Congress's print collection. Every sensation we remember, every thought we think, alters the connections within that vast network. Synapses are strengthened or weakened or formed anew. Our physical substance changes. Indeed, it is always changing, every moment, even as we sleep.