Diane Van Deren – the Athletic Benefits of Short-Term Memory loss


I was recently studying New Scientist articles about the latest research in the field of neuroscience, and I came across the extraordinary story of ultra marathon runner and elite athlete – Diane Van Deren. Before I explain why this lady is so special, I must explain that within neuroscience, there is a theory that the human capacity for ‘memory’ may have developed as a by-product for the necessity of our human ancestry to develop the ability to ‘fore-see’ the future to a more accurate level, that would enhance survival in an otherwise brutal world. This would imply that by developing the evolutionary ability to ‘see ahead’, and ‘plan’ more effective strategies and tactics that would increase the probability of human survival as a species, an evolutionary by-product was the formulation of brain cells into such an alignment that the capacity to ‘remember’ the past was a natural foundation for ‘predicting’ the future. Understanding ‘how’ the past transpired, and how ‘variables’ within different experiences ‘changed’ events either for or against the chances of human survival, a future pathway premised upon empirical experience could be developed. The point is that it was evolutionary pressure demanding ‘prediction’ of the future that led to the ability to remember the past. This tends to contradict contemporary ideas that privilege ‘memory’ as if it where a primary basis of human evolutionary development, when in fact ‘remembering’ – although vitally important for present-day ‘rote’ premised education systems – came into being only after humans strove to devise clever plans to secure resources and ensure survival. Even if it were argued that ‘memory’ and ‘fore-sight’ developed simultaneously, it has to also be acknowledged that the requirement for ‘fore-sight’ (and not the ability to ‘remember’) was the primary evolutionary pressure.

Therefore, it is logical to state that the human body pre-existed all the more recent evolutionary developments that define homo sapien sapiens. Although evolutionary developments confer some type of distinctive advantage for survival, it is also true that many such developments have also had negative effects (which have been acceptable in the greater scheme of things, as the survival of the species has been improved above and beyond any inconvenience experience by the loss of an ability here or there). As matters transpire, new generations are born not really understanding what has been lost from previous generations, whilst fully benefitting from a new evolutionary fitness.

Diane Van Deren has had surgery upon her brain as a means to control and/or stop the epileptic seizures she has suffered from, for much of her life. Epilepsy can be a debilitating condition that renders individuals at the mercy of random electrical neurons firing throughout the brain. this can lead to memory loss, confusion, disorientation, mood swings, illogical thinking, sensory hallucinations, uncontrollable muscular spasms, incontinence and unconsciousness, etc. As such, seizures can strike at anytime, and given that the various medicine designed to control this condition often hinder or impair reactions and judgements, many people suffering from epilepsy cannot drive and are usually ‘banned’ from doing so. Employment is also an issue, with many employers refusing to take the extra care needed to employ a person suffering from epilepsy. Given this bleak scenario, some people take the surgical route as a means to gain some sort of normality for their lives (despite the risks). Many problems can occur from such a procedure, as the exact area of the brain that is mis-firing has to be operated upon in just the right manner, so as to stop the mis-firing – whilst causing the minimum of damage to other areas of brain functionality.

Diane Van Deren, in a recent ultra marathon, ran 1,500 kilometres in just 22 days. On many of those days, Diane ran for 20 hours non-stop! Although Diane had been good at sports in her youth, her enhanced athletic endurance stems from the brain-damage she suffered from the operation that helped her control her epilepsy. By controlling the condition, the surgeon inadvertently took-away Diane’s short-term memory (an attribute of the mind not present in earlier evolutionary models of human ancestry). Today, whilst running mile after mile, she simply cannot ‘remember’ how long she has been engaged in this act of physical exertion. As Diane cannot ‘remember’ how long she has been running, she is freed from the usual sense of fatigue and exhaustion that plagues runners possessing fully functioning memory capacities. Ordinary runners, utilising the evolutionary advantage of ‘memory’ are generally caught-up in the details of where they have been and where they are going, but none of this distracting information is present in the mind of Diane Van Deren. Indeed, her mind-set, as it is firmly fixed in the present (without deviation), is likened to the achievement of the existential ‘Zen’ state of meditation achieved by some Buddhists – whereby the mind does not move or waiver.  As this is the case, Diane Van Deren can run for longer without experiencing the usual tiredness associated with such an activity. When trying to recall how long she has been running, Diane routinely underestimates her times by around 8 hours. Her example might well imply that before the evolutionary advent of ‘fore-sight’ and ‘memory’, the human species was much more physically robust. However, evolution (through natural selection) suggests that the benefits of the possession of the attributes of ‘fore-sight’ and ‘memory’ across the human species ‘outweighs’ the old advantages of a more ‘robust’ (but less ‘thinking’) human species. Diane Van Deren, of course, is a fully thinking modern human (with perfectly functioning longterm memory) who has over-come her disability, excelled within of the most extreme sports practised by humans today, and at the same time given us a glimpse into an earlier evolutionary period.

Reference: New Scientist – Instant Expert: How Your Brain Works, John Murray Learning, (2017), Pages 31-54

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