Saturday, September 29, 2007

Thoughts on the Reading

LeDoux's assertion that the brain loses the processes that are not used frequently causes me to recall Virgil. Because his brain had adapted to being visually blind when his vision returned he suffered from mild agnosia. Which makes me wonder if S.'s reliance on a sensory world caused his brain to lose the processes which create a logical world.

His inability to understand the abstract was seen through his confusion when trying to find meaning in poetry. In Luria's previous work "The Man with a Shattered World," Luria discusses how the evolution of language, from more explicit concrete phrasing to more simplified terms reflects the development of our brain. Most of us can infer so much from a minute amount of information. Meanings change depending on context, connotation and tone, but all S. could understand was the literal. Perhaps the processes that allow us to pull so much from so little is what S. has lost? And because his reliance on the senses had begun so early on he could not correct it? Or rather he didn't even know that anything was wrong.

Borges romanticizes the mnemonist "he seemed as monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt, anterior to the prophecies and the pyramids. It occurred to me that each one of my words (each one of my gestures) would live on in his implacable memory;" (Borges, 115) Nabokov, however sees synsthesia as a flaw and finds the imagery brought on by words and sounds often grotesque. The discrepancies make me curious as to whether the character of Funes was more accepting of his disorder because it was brought on far later in life in opposition to Nabokov who was born with it.

The symptoms of synesthesia were most fascinating and were seen within the three accounts. They all had a connection to numbers. S. could solve math visually seeing himself act out the problem, Nabokov had an aptitude as well but found himself haunted by them during times of illness, while Funes could not fully understand them and attached specific images to them as S. would with words. I also find it interesting that sharp memory is not synesthesia itself but rather a symptom. I guess one could deduce that there is a strong connection between the senses and the memory and that math being such a concrete way of thinking would naturally work for synesthetes.

I often wonder if such memory is overbearing for more emotional reasons. S. would become overwhelmed as images, sounds and feelings became intermingled and therefore needed to forget in order to properly remember. But I do wonder if there are any "bad memories" that were better left forgotten that he could not get rid of.


Hilary said...

I also agree that the synesthestic connotations of words and numbers was a fascinating aspect to explore -- for S., his senses do not have the ordinary boundaries that the rest of ours do. We see sights, hear sounds, and taste flavors, but for him, all the synaptic barriers have been removed, allowing him to experience the integration of the world in a way that can come perilously close to chaos. To read his processes for remembering the first four stanzas of The Inferno is almost alien -- he creates pictures for each word, which we think would lead only to further confusion, while weaving his way through with their aid. That, if anything, is the closest we can come to seeing how such an extraordinary brain functions. The processes S. describes in the case study sound foreign to us; they are not mnemonic techniques that would occur to us, or even work for us. The most salient feature from the two Luria studies we've read to date, about Zasetsky and S., is that they offer some glimpse, however second-hand, into the workings of a brain whose synapses do not operate the same as ours, and a chance to peek at the world through very different eyes.

The other aspect I found fascinating about S. was the fact that he, unlike the rest of us, had a strong enough power of memory to have some formative recall of his infant and childhood years, even without language in which to frame them. I have long wondered about how we think and process, if we go by pure instinct and sensation, when we are too young to logically translate our world into the structure of language which holds it together for us afterwards. Looking back, S. was able to describe these memories as an adult would, of course, but to be able to recollect his feelings as an infant -- he cried because they wiped him too hard, or because he heard himself crying and it frightened him -- is completely fascinating, and a skill that child psychologists would probably give their left arm for. It makes you wonder if even the infant S. had the strong synesthesia that he exhibits grown up, and what sort of processes would have gone through his mind then. He mentions, as a ten-year-old, singing his baby sister to sleep in a loud voice to create "fog," presumably intended to be calming, so it's clear that he did not function the same even as a young child.

Molly said...

I think what Emmy had pointed out again about S. trying to find meaning in poetry is key. Again it proves some of the things that are not beneficial about having synesthesia. S. remembers these things, everything, everyone, but he doesn't get it. With math I don' t think he would be able to explain it in a way that would make sense to someone with a normal memory. There is a huge difference between remembering something and understanding it. That might be related to what Chomsky says about the development of language in children and in humans, how learning a language is inherent only to human beings. When children are small and they are learning a language they understand what they are learning, it becomes a story, storing itself in their memory as another lesson, but in adults it becomes a memory game. Or at least that is what I found while trying to sit in on a Spanish class. I was trying to memorize why certain words were masculine and feminine without actually 'getting' the meaning behind it. They became words rather than tools in building a language. I think that could have been better clarified with S. Does he have a life, what are the things he holds important, that define him, that he really understands, despite being a synesthestic?