Saturday, October 6, 2007

The loss of Memory

The Shadow of Memory, by Floyd Skloot, is a beautifully written memoir about his life after dementia. After first being struck with brain damage in 1988, Skloot writes smoothly and eloquently about the hardships and the newfound advantages of his new life. It is amazing that Skloot was able to write such a book, considering all the things that prohibit him from leading a so-called "normal" life. Although Skloot's IQ dropped considerably and he was impaired in logical thinking, he describes a new found emotional freedom, which I found fascinating. "It was apparent in small, everyday experiences that had never touched me deeply before, such as being moved to tears by seeing an outfielder make a diving catch, hearing the opening melody of Max Bruch's "Kol Nidre" etc..." Skloot describes how his love for his wife deepend, his connection with his daughter grew, and how he was finally able to face his brother's advancing terminal illness. He writes: "love and passion entered my life for the first time in decades".
An interesting connection that I found in Skloot and in Sach’s account of the colorblind painter was that both Skloot and Mr. I, adapted and found a new kind of lightness of being through their disability. Skloot writes: “I have changed. I have learned to live and live richly as I am now. Slowed down, softer, more heedful of all that I see and hear and feel, more removed from the hubbub, more internal”. When Skloot ponders the idea of returning to how he once was, there is a similar fear within him that correlates to the other readings. I think that when you have learned to live with a “new” form of yourself, the idea of returning to your old self is a frightening and unsettling thought.
In both Skloot’s memoir and in the chapter by LeDoux it is clear that memories are not controlled by one specific region in the brain, but that the whole system functions together. Skloot describes how his eyesight, hearing, smell, and speech mechanisms are all in place, but that it is “putting things together” that is the real challenge. It is obvious that both H.M and Skloot's hyppocampus are impaired and similarly can practice tasks and get better at them but cannot necessarily remeber doing them. For example when H.M. learns to copy a picture of a star, he learns how to do it and "retained the learning", but when asked about the drawing he has no recollection of ever doing it. Skloot, is also liable to forget things he has just thought or just read. It is tragic and horrible, because one feels that Skloot is able to reflect and ponder his illness but has no control over it. Without memory, our whole world as we know it becomes vague and dreamlike. The frustration and the fear of not knowing if you are supposed to remember someone or something. Even my memory is impaired sometimes, and it is embarrasing when I meet someone who knows me and I cannot remember their face or name. To constantly be living in doubt of yourself is a very scarry thought. All the readings we have studying, make me feel so blessed to be in a sound and coherent state of being.


Emmy P. said...

From Skloot we can see that our working memory and procedural memory are necessary to undergo basic functions or tasks from day to day life. Skloot would often forget what he was doing while he was doing it, even with out distraction. It is apparent there is some defect in his implicit memory functions. His explicit functions are interesting in that, he is aware of the fact that he is making an implicit mistake, but can't control it.

We can deduce that his declarative memory is mostly functioning. He often discusses the "shadows of memories" he knows that he once knew something but can't exactly remember what that something is. But major details of his past are still there.

Skloot reminds me a lot of Zasetsky. They both constantly struggle to get through the day, always aware of their shortcomings, unable to prevent them, but still possess the motivation to document, adapt and conquer the limitations presented by their brain injuries.

Skloot's discussion on how his brain was "set-up" by himself to be unable to defeat his viral infection causes me to recall, LeDoux's nature/nurture theory. Skloot's brain in response to constant physical abuse from his mother and sports caused it to become rewired to function in a different way."...I not only had a brain wired for over-response to stress, I had a brain damaged by its steady exposure to neurochemicals associated with that response. I had a damaged immune system.(skloot, 83)"

Fortunately we can look to the bright side, as Sacks often does. Similar to the cases of Jimmy with religion, Dr.P with music and the Color Blind Painter with his new outlook, we can appreciate that Skloot has found a new connection to nature-- a certain peace, that he never would have experienced without his heightened emotions.

sarahlaties said...

Your mention of Skloot’s new-found affinity for slow, country life got me wondering about environment – or, more specifically, about the relationship between a person’s surroundings and his mental state. The level at which we’re required to function is often the result of our setting, a thing that I’d define by both our geographic location and the company we keep. The onset of amnesia estranges each patient in this week’s reading from his or her old world, as functioning the way they all once did becomes impossible. As a result, mental illness has prompted the families of these patients to encourage (or force) their retreat from larger society. Where, then, is the best place to put somebody who can’t take care of himself? How about somebody who can sort of take care of himself?

I wonder about the impact of autonomy. In Shadow, relocating to the woods seems to symbolize Skloot’s acceptance of his brain “insult.” Staying in Portland would have implied more visits to the doctor, more neurological tests, more fighting against public displays of illness – in general, the pursuit of his old persona. Once he has moved, Skloot begins to resign himself to his new state of being. He even relishes some aspects of it, specifically the new emotional capacity that deepens even further when he moves out to the quiet country. It is interesting to compare Skloot’s voluntary move to a rural area with Hazel’s strange house arrest, or to the placement of people like H.M. into permanent hospital care (LeDoux doesn’t mention whether H.M. was ever hospitalized, but it seems a fair guess). I wonder to what extent a mentally ill person’s environment shapes both his understanding and acceptance of his new self.

Also…Skloot’s virus left him intellectually fragmented, and he moved out of the city soon after that reality set in. If the theory of relative memory mentioned in LeDoux is accurate, I wonder if damage to Skloot’s hippocampus affected his awareness of his own spatial existence. He describes an inability to control his relationship with his body and the space around it: “…the damage to my brain has affected the system by which I hold myself in place. For me to retain balance requires work and a focus on what holds still; it requires a recognition of limits and place” (28). (I’m not really sure if spatial awareness is a part of spatial memory, but it seems like it would be.) A loss of spatial memory may have heightened the frustration he associated with living in a city, a place requiring constant navigation.

I wonder, too, if the theory of relational memory is relevant to Skloot’s “ghost” memories, the faint feeling of memories that he isn’t quite able to recall. Maybe if each memory is the sum many separate, discrete elements, than in amnesia it is possible to lose all parts of an experience except for its smells or colors, which linger without context.