Saturday, September 22, 2007

Use It or Lose It

Just as multiple systems are at work in our brains and bodies, we need to examine behavior, disorders, and human nature from a variety of perspectives--look at one aspect to the exclusion of all others and you get an incomplete picture. If we had read only LeDoux this week, I'd be left with the uncomfortable understanding that we are machines and little else; but when neurons don't communicate properly, or glutamate is overactive, or an injury occurs, it is not a machine that is affected, but a person. (Such is also the reason, I think, that Hirstein is approaching confabulation from the angles of neuroscience and philosophy, as well as others: limit the ways of looking at something and you limit what you learn.)

The four people we read about this week all suffered losses, either of memory or vision (or both), and psychological loss (either because of their memory and vision problems, or, in the case of Franco the artist, psychological loss was the root of his suffering). Zasetsky's loss was the most tragic, because even if, as Sacks claims in his foreword to The Man with a Shattered World, "A life, a human life, is not a life until it is examined; that it is not a life until it is truly remembered and appropriated; and that such a remembrance is not something passive, but active, the active and creative construction of one's life, the finding and telling of the true story of one's life," Zasetsky's journal was never a creative construction, but a repetitious infinity nightmare. It is almost impossible to comprehend his problems with memory and sight; and while I understand that automatic writing comes from a different part of the brain, not the same area he injured, it's difficult to understand how he could write at all, given the problems he described. I also wondered why no part of his brain could begin to make up for some of the deficits; the damage was just too great?

Virgil's experience was also tragic, but the irony of his case is that it may have been less tragic if he had never regained his sight to begin with. Problems with his new vision were similar to many of Zasetsky's problems: understanding space and distance, reading, ideas slipping from his mind. And like Zasetsky could write if he didn't think too hard about the task, Virgil could use his fork and knife when he first sat down to eat, but as time went on, it became too difficult. He had to learn to see just as a sighted person does from birth, and it's no wonder that faces were just blurs of color; though the concepts seem related, recognition is not about sight.

The two artists, Mr. I and Franco, were luckier. One of the most interesting aspects of Mr. I's story was that his injury (or stroke) didn't cause him to forget the entire concept of color, but in time that happened. And while Franco was tortured by his obsession and his memory was his gift, he had things in common with the amnesiacs we've read about, like his ability to remember things long past, and his dismay at seeing his sister's face reflecting her true age.

Hirstein mentions "nature's general use-it-or-lose-it strategy," which seems to be relevant to all of this week's case studies. Zasetsky didn't have much choice in what he could use and what he lost, but imagine if he didn't work so hard to retrieve the knowledge that he could; what shape would he have been left in then? Virgil hadn't seen since he was a little boy and lost his ability to understand what he saw. His brain had compensated for his sightlessness and perhaps he could never retrain the necessary parts to go back to their original purpose. Mr. I first lost his ability to see color and then, in time, lost even his memory of color. And Franco feared that a return to his hometown would put a stop to his visual memories. It didn't, but it did change the way he envisioned it. (I wonder what would have become of Franco if he never started painting: Would the visions have ceased? Would he have retreated into himself, a prisoner of his obsession? Would he have "lost it"?)

Hirstein also mentions materialists and eliminative materialism. These thinkers believe that "all of the amazing qualities of our mental lives are actually physical properties" and "in the future we will not speak of beliefs or desires, but rather will adopt entirely new ways of speaking about the mind based on the findings of neuroscience." It's intriguing, but I don't think the messy human aspects of mental life is something we can afford to lose.


ellen said...

I also thought that Virgil's case was tragic. If he had not gotten the surgery, he would have lived his life happily and probably wouldn't have gotten so ill. I don't think that his life was terrible because he could not see. He didn't even remember what seeing was like so, to him, nothing was lost. The colorblind artist was distraught when he first lost his ability to see colors. However, after some time, he started to appreciate his "disability" and actually gained something from it - inspiration. He also forgot what colors looked like. So, eventually, he didn't lose anything at all either.

Stephanie said...

I had questions, too, about why the parts of Zasetsky's brain that remained in tact didn't overcompensate in the way, for example, a blind person's auditory system would. Is that quality of hyperdevelopment or acuteness specific to sensory losses?

What struck me most about the case studies - Zasetsky, Mr. I, Virgil, and Magnani (whose story no one has mentioned but I found to be incredibly moving) - was the brain's adaptive power. But it wasn't necessarily an adaptation like the hyperdevelopment of another part of the brain that impressed me most. It was more the fact that change became routine, in certain ways. I'm not trying to say that they each didn't struggle and suffer a great deal, because they certainly did, but it's interesting to me how they each constructed their identity based on their "loss" or "gain". Zasetsky's life was now characterized by his struggle for identity - that, in itself, became his identity. Mr. I found a new world opened up to him at night, as well as a new style of painting. Franco's visions gave him a sense of purpose and determined the course of his personal and professional life. And Virgil did make progress, especially after his family accepted his new ability, though he never abandoned his old identity and must have been relieved, in a strange way, to become blind again.

Another question I had was whether or not Virgil had agnosia. I understand that physiologically, the cause was different, and I guess the symptoms alone do not define the disease. However, there were just so many similarities - like the way he could identify animals by their movement. That reminds me of the concept of "body music." Another similarity was the way he could take in particular details but not synthesize these into a coherent whole.

Also, how did Virgil decide what he found ugly? There was a footnote about how he found himself, his wife, and people's skin blemishes to be ugly. But isn't our perception of beauty learned, not inherent? Are there characteristics that determine one basic aesthetic sense that everyone unconsciously agrees upon? I have read that symmetry is highly valued in Americans' determinations of beauty. But I still thought this was a product of people's environment and society, not necessarily a universal given.