I recently watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le scaphandre et le papillon), which describes the tragic plight of the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a severe stroke and became “locked-in.” During my research days, I had worked a bit on rehabilitation systems for such locked-in patients, who have normal or near-normal cognitive activities but no motor control. In other words, their fully functional minds are locked in a useless body that affords them no means of communication with the external world. It is the solitary confinement of the highest order.
Locked-in condition is one of my secret fears; not so much for myself, but that someone close to me might have to go through it. My father suffered a stroke and was comatose for a month before he passed away, and I will always wonder whether he was locked-in. Did he feel pain and fear? So I Googled a bit to find out if stroke patients were conscious inside. I couldn’t find anything definitive. Then it occurred to me that perhaps these stroke patients were conscious, but didn’t remember it later on.
That thought brought me to one of my philosophical musings. What does it mean to say that something happened if you cannot remember it? Let’s say you had to go through a lot of pain for whatever reason. But you don’t remember it later. Did you really suffer? It is like a dream that you cannot remember. Did you really dream it?
Memory is an essential ingredient of reality, and of existence — which is probably why they can sell so many digital cameras and camcorders. When memories of good times fade in our busy minds, perhaps we feel bits of our existence melting away. So we take thousands of pictures and videos that we are too busy to look at later on.
But I wonder. When I die, my memories will die with me. Sure, those who are close to me will remember me for a while, but the memories that I hold on to right now, the things I have seen and experienced, will all disappear — like an uncertain dream that someone (perhaps a butterfly) dreamt and forgot. So what does it mean to say that I exist? Isn’t it all a dream?