Keeping your mind and your memory alive.
Last night I had the great privilege of moderating a discussion between Eric Kandel and Elie Wiesel at the 92Y in New York City on the topic of memory. I thought I would be humbled sitting between two Nobel Prize winners and indeed I was, but not for the reason I thought. I was humbled by listening to the thoughts of two extraordinarily resilient men who had not only overcome great tragedy and difficulty to succeed, but indeed had embraced their experiences and used them to be ever more creative, driven and altruistic.
You might think that memories of experiences in a concentration camp, of losing those you love most, of being terrorized and forced to give up your home would be ones that you would be content to try to forget in order to survive and move forward. But as Professor Wiesel so eloquently put it “It’s not that I want to live in my past, it’s that I want my past to live in me.” He “never wants to forget, anything but forgetting”. Indeed his past and the past of both men’s traumas have lived on in them and the work they have spent their lives doing. Their life’s work is dedicated to an understanding of memory.
Dr. Kandel’s advice regarding preserving your memory as late into life as possible? Eat well, exercise regularly, be social and keep learning new things. He also shared “never retire”! Both men explained that at 84 and 85 they remain avid and voracious learners and see this as a key ingredient to maintaining their sharp minds and memories.
In addition to the fact that each man has shed light for humanity on the complexities both biologically and philosophically of memory , they also personally show us that understanding your own memories, examining them, empowers us to find a deeper meaning in our own lives and to use that meaning to help society. Memory is one of the most important ways by which our histories inform our current actions and experiences. Our moral compass and social life depends on our use of memories and taken collectively memory shapes history. Professor Wiesel and Dr. Kandel have indeed shaped history with their memories.