Lepidopteran Perspective on the Persistency of Memory

lep·i·dop·ter·a

lɛpɨˈdɒptərə

noun

  1. any of a large order of insects comprising the butterflies, moths, and skippers that as adults have four lanceolate wings covered with minute overlapping and brightly colored scales and that as larvae are caterpillars

 


 

Butterflies have long captured the attention of willing observers with their prismatic display of delicately patterned wings and, seemingly, haphazard-style of aerial navigation.  However, even more striking than a butterfly’s form, is the juxtaposition between its previous incarnations as a crawling caterpillar to winged adult.

 


 

mem·o·ry

mem(ə)rē

noun

  1. the faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information.
  2. the mind regarded as a store of things remembered.
  3. something remembered from the past; a recollection
  4. the length of time over which people continue to remember a person or event.

 


 

Metamorphosis begins when the caterpillar reaches a genetically ingrained “final weight” signaling dormancy. The caterpillar will grow an appendage called the “cremaster” that will protrude from the end of its abdomen. The cremaster is the attachment with which the caterpillar will acrobatically pendent itself from a foliage perch. When suspended, the caterpillar will then molt its superficial costume to reveal the chrysalis beneath.

 


 

di·ag·no·sis

ˌdīəgˈnōsis/

noun

  1. the identification of the nature of an illness or other problem by examination of the symptoms.
  2. the distinctive characterization in precise terms of a genus, species, or phenomenon.

 


 

What occurs inside the chrysalis is a mystery that science has been trying to unravel for centuries. The perceived mundaneness of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis is borne from the common knowledge of this phenomenon we learn as children. But, the abstruse transition that unfolds inside the chrysalis is little understood and, when paid extra thought than typically provided, it is truly a remarkable feat of nature. 

 


 

tran·si·tion

tranˈziSHən,-ˈsiSHən

noun

  1. the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.
  2. a passage in a piece of writing that smoothly connects two topics or sections to each other.

 


 

Inside the chrysalis is a cellular soup of tissue and blood, organs and bone, neurons and memories. The caterpillar does not remain intact and simply grow wings; the caterpillar liquesces inside the chrysalis into a preparatory ooze. The tangible mixture of the caterpillar’s previous being materializes into a renaissance form; a butterfly emerges from the chrysalis.

 


 

chrys·a·lis

krisələs

noun

  1. a quiescent insect pupa, esp. of a butterfly or moth.
  2. the hard outer case of this, esp. after being discarded.
  3. a preparatory or transitional state.

 


 

When you undergo such a transformation from a terrestrial creature to one with aerial pursuits, what carries through? If your physical being is entirely reconstructed, what of your spiritual presence remains intact? It is now known, butterflies remember their previous armatures as caterpillars. Even though the physicality of their existence has profoundly changed, the butterfly remains conscious of its undiminished identity.

 


 

met·a·mor·pho·sis

metəˈmôrfəsəs/

noun

  1. the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages.
  2. a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one, by natural or supernatural means.

 


 

Truly, the lepidopteran metamorphosis is much like the human experience. We are all similar in fate to emerging butterflies, set loose in an alien zone, at the wrong altitude, among an unfamiliar flora. Physical and spiritual transitions, diagnoses, or metamorphoses experienced through life’s course serve as persistent reminders – the journey is temporal, fluid, and personal. We will never know how the mind turns the water of our cells into the wine of consciousness.Therefore, the question is not, what of me carries forward into the future; it is, what of my future self is in me right now?  

 


 

By Colby Chambers, Graduate Student, School of Public Health

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