Friday, September 28, 2007

The Various Kinds of Self

The story of S. represented a departure, to me, from the stories of Sacks and the other book of Luria's, "The Man With a Shattered World," we have been reading. The subjects of those stories - Dr. P., Zasetzky, Jimmie G., Jose, etc. - had conditions, abnormalities of brain function that were, if not easily understood, easily recognized as "problems." There was something "missing" - color vision, memory, the ability to identify objects - in all of those patients. And although whether their deficits made them "soulless" or "God-forsaken," as Sacks suggests in some cases, and the consequence on their personalities may be debated, it is clear that these people have lost something that we, as "undamaged" individuals, have. There is something "wrong" with them.

I am not so sure that something is "wrong" with S. Initially, it appears that he is "more" than a regular person; he has something that we - "normal" individuals - DON'T have: a "vast memory;" a "capacity" to remember that "had no distinct limits" (11). And yet it soon becomes clear that S.'s abilities are not simply an enhanced version of the skills that everyone has, but represent a mind that works in an entirely different way than ours. Furthermore, was his ability to remember "any lengthy series of words whatever ... fifteen or sixteen years after the session in which he had originally recalled the words" a representation of heightened capacity, or diminished capacity (11-2)? Was it incredible that he could remember, or terrible that he could not forget?

The answer, as Luria illuminates, is both. S.'s mind allowed him to recall detailed and random information from many years ago (12); to clearly picture scenes from his infancy (77-80); and to quickly solve complicated mathematical and logical problems in his head (100-111). At the same time, the very kind of thinking that allowed him to carry out those tasks limited him in significant ways. He had difficulty discerning the overall meaning of simple passages he read: "to understand a passage, to grasp the information it contains," Luria explains, was a "tortuous procedure" for S., who lacked the ability to identify and focus clearly upon the details that were most important to comprehension.

Throughout Luria's description of S.'s "strong points" and "weak points," I kept thinking of intelligence, and how it is quantified in tests like the IQ test or SAT's - how would someone like S. perform? Perhaps he would perform well on any math or logic questions, but his inability to derive meaning from simple phrases like "weigh one's words" or "the wind drove the clouds" would surely result in his score reflecting a very low intelligence - simply because we put so much more significance on verbal capacity than on mathematical ability as quantifiers of intelligence (119). To the makers of such tests, who cares if someone can solve mathematical problems quickly - if he can't understand simple metaphors and expressions, ones that are commonly used and understood by most other intelligent people, he's an idiot! S.'s story made me question (not for the first time) the accuracy of standardized testing in determining intelligence. It would seem that such tests only account for one type of brain, one type of learning and understanding.

But how is it that S. came to possess such a different "type" of brain - one preoccupied with images and his imagination, rather than verbal language and reality? I'm not sure that even Joseph LeDoux could be able to explain exactly how. His chapter, "Building the Brain," however, I believe makes it clear how it is possible that different "types" of brains develop. At the time a young brain begins to form, he tells us, there exists an incredible number of opportunities as to how it may develop, based on "genes, their products, and the local chemical environment in which they exist" (66). The course of the brain's development, in fact, is simply the process of eliminating these opportunities: "pruning back ... exuberant, unused projections" (74). Perhaps, during this time of synaptic selection and subtraction, we all have the potential to become visually-oriented, highly imaginative, synesthetic individuals like S. - but whether by the action of genes, the influence of environment, or both, the specific connections that would have allowed for that kind of development were "pruned" and eliminated in favor of a more verbally-based circuitry.

What is strange, then, is not the fact that a different type of brain is possible, but that so many of us tend to have the same type of verbally-based brain. Most of us have a much easier time understanding expressions of speech and the meaning of the written word than S.; most of us are not as capable as S. is at solving mathematical equations, or at least we do not solve equations in the way that he does, using images; the vast majority of us are able to forget - and do so without thinking about it. The fact that S. is an anomaly is interesting, less so than the fact that an anomaly could exist. What does this tell us in terms of evolution? Our early hominid ancestors were not capable of speech. When, and why, did it become more useful to have a brain focused more on words than images? What does it mean that we are not only capable of communicating with words, but that those words transcend into our inner thought processes - causing us to think in terms of words, to solve problems in terms of words, and to create personal narratives based on words? Why are we so focused on language, all of the time?

Furthermore, why is it necessary that all of our senses be so separate from each other, to point where when we HEAR a word, we HEAR it and nothing else? At first, it seemed strange to me that the narrator in Nabokov's "Speak Memory" might see "[t]he long a of the English alphabet" in "the tint of weathered wood" (34). That sort of thing is unfamiliar to us, but why? Although relative to people like S., we might consider our senses to be separate, there are times when they cross over. Certain colors, sounds, and images evoke the activity of other senses for various reasons - association being the foremost of them. If you eat a purple candy, you may believe it tastes like grape, even if it isn't flavored so. And think of all the emotions associated with colors: red, anger; yellow, happiness; blue, sadness - these are how they are most commonly categorized, although you may have different assocations for them. I know the color blue doesn't look sad to me, although red is most definitely angry.

What I come back to, at the end of all this, is whether or not we may truly call what S. has a "syndrome." Luria himself says what he is attempting to do in writing is present us with the "total picture of a disease" (5). But is that what S. has - a disease? Should we be trying to understand his condition based on what we can observe of it - he has a good memory, bad reading comprehension, good mathematical/logical reasoning skills - or should we categorize all of those as simply expressions of the functioning of an entirely different type of mind altogether?

We've discussed the boundary between disruptions of the brain's functioning and personality - how is personality affected by sickness? When do the sickness and the individual become inseparable? I don't know where to draw that boundary, but I do believe that S. is inseparable from his condition - his imagination and his vivid visual capabilities are part of what makes him who he is; they shape his personality, his thought, his behavior. If he had been born, like the rest of us, with a tendency to favor verbal thought over visual, and with the ability to forget, he simply would not be the same S.

With this in mind, is it possible for sickness to change the personality - to transform one person into a totally different being? That is one of the questions that arose during my reading of "Funes, the Memorious" - did the accident that crippled Ireneo change just his memory, or his entire self? And if he truly possessed a new and different "self," was he still a person like you or I? I believe that S. possessed a self like any other person, despite his particular brain functions. But the narrator of "Funes" believes that Ireneo "was not very capable of thought" (115). And what more famous definition of conscious existence and self is there than "I think, therefore I am?"


Matt N said...

“I am not so sure that something is "wrong" with S.” In fact I would go in as so far to say, his “syndrome” or “hyper” is mind-blowing—mostly because it’s hard to understand how he does the things he can. He literally recreates space in his mind; tastes, smells and touches colour; remembers the shortest and the longest conversations, for eternity. You want to call him a sponge on life but (!) he is never saturated. His thirst for live is unfathomable. That’s what frightens me most about his case though, and you brought that up: “Was it incredible that he could remember, or terrible that he could not forget?”
Yes, it would be fantastic not to study for a test or simply look at sheet of words and know conversation Italian –I’ll admit that would make college a lot less of challenge—but imagine what it would be like never to forget. Know I know that S talks about being able to “erase” the informational chalkboards in his mind but when you look at those old chalkboards do you not see remnants of writing? Imagine what that must be like psychically… as humans, we forgot. We need to. We compartmentalize. “Time heals all wounds,” expect for S. He would literally relive an argument, a betrayal, a failure in a “High Definition” screening in his own head. How could he trust people? I could imagine how frustrated it would to be him, always remembering when people or late—or being his friend, having S point out negative recurring patterns in your manor because he remembers every small detail. Like he knows you will tend to be late if you are coming back from such and such. How could he live with that?
In pushing the subject I wondered, how would one go about speaking with such a man? This wildly intelligent man who cannot really live in metaphors or understand them. I would assume that would mean he would speak in quite a blunt, straightforward manner but people tend to be more subtle than that, wrapping their true meaning in poetic phrases and actions but that wouldn’t work with S. It must have been so hard for him to communicate on a deeper level with sensitive, shy people. As you pointed out, not may of us “have the same type of verbally-based brain.” But the man has to express himself the only way he knows.
As hard as it must be to have S’s kind of mind, I’ll admit I’m rather jealous. He lives in the world that we merely exist in. Life actives his sense as we stumble feebly around looking for a caffeine pick me up. It’s as were talking about in class: S is open to an entirely different spectrum of class. Colours are more vibrant to him, words more interesting, tastes pop that much more. Life is like a symphony for him, senses and sounds singing out in harmony and surrounding S. As for me, I love to write but I feel pressure to find the right words; however, I cannot imagine not only trying to get the meaning and the flow right but even just the sound of the word. That must have been incredibly frustrating for S, that words not only had to mean the right thing but sound it. Now, the easiest way I can relate here is with names. I feel that it’s incredibly hard to parents to pick the right name to express their children (but a lot of the times it’s dead on) and I have the worst time remembering names for people that have no business being a Sally when they are clearly a Rachael-- Like S says, “people are so changeable… a person’s expressions depends on his mood and circumstances…” – So I can relate to S and his frustration with language, for speech must have been so offensive to him because we would all use terms and words that were so abrasive to his visual centered world. What stress having to conscious edit conversation.
You left me with a very hard topic here. Is S sick? Does he have an illness? Are he and that illness different entities. Well, I believe that we are our experiences that they shape us into the people we become, so I believe that he is neither a man nor an illness. He simply is: is different, is gifted. I will say that without his expansive memory or warped affect in life, he would not be the same S. Granted I wouldn’t be the same person if I hadn’t grown up in Connecticut or was born to my parents. Our past, our narrative, is shaped by the events in our lives: be it health or sickness, marriage or death, wealthy or poor, our past shapes us. I will say though, in glancing back at the inscription to the book, I would like to, too, “slip past the smooth, cold surface of the looking glass and find [my]self in a wonderland,” where food always has a soundtrack and letter aren’t black but shiny red, where I would wander in my own imagination. I would like to slip into S’s world for a day or so. If you consider that sick, so be it. And I’ll be too wrapped stimulated by his “symphony of life” to care anyways.

Lauren S said...

Madeline and Matt, you both mentioned a number of things about this week's readings that struck me as well. I too questioned what the correct descriptor of synesthesia should be: disorder? disease? condition? S. didn't even realize that his way of remembering differed from the rest of the world until his editor began questioning him about his memory (growing up in a family of individuals with strong memories probably added to this sense of normalcy). All labels used to indicate a change from "normal" health or functioning are, in a way, a comparison--even names of physical diseases imply "once she was healthy and now she has _____"--so I think it is inevitable that whatever makes someone different from the norm does indeed define him or her, and become--at least partly--an aspect of the person's personality. It's not just how we see ourselves, but how others treat us, which then alters our own behavior. Before S. knew he was different, the people around him could sense his peculiarities, and therefore probably treated him as peculiar, which in turn would make him respond in a certain way, and so on. In some ways, life works just as the brain does (or the brain works like life?): any change, any action, any feeling, alters us slightly, which then affects our next action or feeling, and so on. (Maybe it will make LeDoux's text even more understandable if, in an S.-like manner, I invent little human scenarios for the neurons, axons, synapses, etc...)

I also have to admit that, despite the problems involved, I'm a bit envious of the synesthetes. Can I fire up some portion of my brain unused since birth and train it to make life more musical, more colorful? Probably not, but at least I can remain aware of the opportunities for color and music.

Stephanie said...

One idea that keeps recurring, through nearly all of the accounts we have read so far, is the connection between identity and "illness." People have mentioned it here, in posts and comments, in relation to S and his seemingly endless visual memory. It also stands out to me in the story about "Witty Ticcy Ray," and how he seemed so alien to himself when on his medication. This is a tough question for me in a way, because I don't think anyone can really answer it, definitively. There is no one objective sense of "health" or "illness," because it's somewhat of a judgment. But at the same time, there has to be a balance, some middle ground to agree upon.

What also stands out to me as a theme among these narratives is a connection with the past, particularly childhood homes. Magnani experiences visions of Pontito as seen through his childhood self, while S. returns to "images of his childhood: of the little house had had lived in." On the opposite side of things, William (from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) was able to recognize his brother, though he could not make sense of him, and Jimmie G. was lost in "a permanent... reminiscence of the past."

In my opinion, though I'm just guessing, I think there's a connection here. We like what is familiar, take a sense of security in that familiarity, and use it to construct our identities or narratives. However, I don't think that this is always the healthiest response to a situation. For example, Virgil was so tied to his identity as a blind man that he would not - or could not - find the will to adapt to the new visual images he was able to see. Someone like Zasetsky, who strove to overcome his condition, might have had an easier time adapting and could possibly have come to enjoy and revel in the beauty of sight.

I guess it's a personal choice, and I'm not trying to judge Virgil. (In fact, I think his wife pushed him too much, and if he was happy being blind, he should have stayed that way.) What I do think, though, is that we need to be open to change. Our brains are; we've seen the incredible adaptive powers of the brain in the readings thus far. We've read about how our brain is changing all the time, in a constant state of flux. I am touched by the way that the events of our past, especially our childhoods, play such a large role in who we are and how we define ourselves as people. But I think that there is some benefit in adaptation. For example, when S. realized that he could control his ability to ignore or "forget" certain things, his life became much easier. Our identities should be open to change, growth, and opportunity, not set in stone.

Stephanie said...

One more thing I forgot to mention - in response to Madeline's question of whether or not "the accident that crippled Ireneo change[d] just his memory, or his entire self?" After the accident, Borges no longer refers to Ireneo by this name. Instead, he calls him by his last name, Funes. I think that he's alluding to the fact that he's the same person (both first and last name refer to him and he did have those unusual tendencies to remember names and know the time) but at the same time, he is entirely changed. I think it's a little of both. The way that both "mother" and "daughter" can apply to one person, but they mean entirely different things. I just found it interesting that we don't hear Funes referred to by that name until after his accident - that must be deliberate.

Patrick said...

I find all of the discussion about the correct terminology and mindset of viewing S.'s case such as "disorder" and "disease"--both in the comments and in Madeline's original post--to be fascinating. I've always struggled with this idea--and most people do, I think--of whether it is correct to term cases such as this in a way that makes THEM sound wrong and US sound right. The very distinction of there being an "us" and a "them" as if we weren't all humans is preposterous! We've all got different versions of the same model of brain. We're all individuals, some of us more outstanding or unusual than others, but we all share a common bond that should link us no matter what. And yet what we tend to focus on is our apprehension in dealing with differences among us. We tend to want quick solutions like medication or institutionalization. I think it's a very interesting discussion that doesn't necessarily have any solutions.

I also found Madeline's comments with regards to standardized testing to be very thought-provoking. How can we say what intelligence is? How can we claim to measure intelligence while ignoring creative functions and extraneous abilities that might not be represented by the few questions asked? I feel that you need to get to know a person before you can say anything about who they are, how smart they are, what drives them. And testing with such a formulaic model simply will not do.