I met EP at his home, a bright bungalow in suburban San Diego, on a warm spring day. I drove there with Larry Squire, a neuroscientist and memory researcher at the University of California, San Diego, and the San Diego VA Medical Center, and Jen Frascino, the research coordinator in Squire's lab who visits EP regularly to administer cognitive tests. Even though Frascino has been to EP's home some 200 times, he always greets her as a stranger.
Frascino sits down opposite EP at his dining room table and asks a series of questions that gauge his common sense. She quizzes him about what continent Brazil is on, the number of weeks in a year, the temperature water boils at. She wants to demonstrate what IQ tests have already proved: EP is no dummy. He patiently answers the questions—all correctly—with roughly the same sense of bemusement I imagine I would have if a total stranger walked into my house, sat down at my table, and very earnestly asked me if I knew the boiling point of water.
"What is the thing to do if you find an envelope in the street that is sealed, addressed, and has a stamp on it?" Frascino asks.
"Well, you'd put it in the mailbox. What else?" He chuckles and shoots me a sidelong and knowing glance, as if to say, Do these people think I'm an idiot? But sensing that the situation calls for politeness, he turns back to Frascino and adds, "But that's a really interesting question you've got there. Really interesting." He has no idea he's heard it many times before.
"Why do we cook food?"
"Because it's raw?" The word raw carries his voice clear across the tonal register, his bemusement giving way to incredulity.
"Why do we study history?"
"Well, we study history to know what happened in the past."
"But why do we want to know what happened in the past?"
"Because, it's just interesting, frankly."
EP wears a metal medical alert bracelet around his left wrist. Even though it's obvious what it's for, I ask him anyway. He turns his wrist over and casually reads it.
"Hmm. It says memory loss."