Brainwave: Can an Actor Act Without Short-Term Memory?

Thursday night was the New York City premiere of Caris’ Peace, a documentary about actor Caris Corfman, who lost her short-term memory after four operations to remove a benign tumor located on her pituitary gland. The movie chronicles her day-to-day life several years after the operation, and how she eventually made her way back to the stage to perform a lauded one-woman show. The film and following discussion took place at the Rubin Museum as part of their Brainwave series, and was sponsored in part by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives as part of Brain Awareness Week (March 12-18).

When the movie opened with the Sarah McLauchlin song “Angel,” I was a bit anxious, because, let’s be honest, that song seems to exist to make people feel horribly depressed (ASPCA advertisement, anyone?), but the story was more triumphant than sad. Despite her injury, Corfman retained her wicked sense of humor and her determination to return to her profession was inspiring. Although she had no short-term memory, Caris was acutely aware of her condition, so for her to step back in front of a live audience (with the help of some cue cards) was certainly courageous.

Following the 90-minute movie, comedian Lewis Black (a long-time friend to Caris and a producer of the film) and neuroscientist and Dana Alliance member Barry Gordon, M.D., Johns Hopkins University, discussed memory in relation to Caris’ situation and in more general terms.

According to Dr. Gordon, Corfman suffered from human amnesic syndrome, meaning she couldn’t learn from minute to minute. Once her attention shifted, he explained, she would lose her train of thought. This condition results from damage to the area of her brain responsible for declarative memory.

Memory is divided into two major components, said Gordon. Declarative memory is our awareness of the world around us and our personal experiences, and doesn’t require much attention. Procedural memory, which Gordon noted is very resistant to brain damage, is our skills, such as riding a bicycle, or in Caris’ case how to act and dance. The two memory areas frequently interrelate, Gordon said.

In Caris’ situation, explained Gordon, her brain injury stopped the solidification of her declarative memory, although not 100%. Caris still had flickers of memory from time to time. She did, however retain many of her past memories of friends and experiences. In the movie she said she hates to look in the mirror because the person she sees is not how she remembers herself.

Over the course of his career, Gordon said he has seen 20-30 patients with amnesia similar to Caris, and he viewed her condition as untreatable (it should be noted that he was not her doctor, but he is familiar with her case). He did acknowledge, though, that there is research into using deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat patients with memory loss. The idea behind this research is that someone like Caris has what seems to be an on/off switch in her brain when it comes to her memory. Researchers hope that the electric currents will help to keep the switch “on.”

The Rubin Museum will screen Caris’ Peace three more times over the coming weeks and tickets are still available. Featured guests will change with each showing.

–Ann L. Whitman

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