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.

Luria and LeDoux

I distinctly recall a year of my life, when I was about eight or nine, in which books about kids with amazing mnemonic abilities were decidedly in vogue at my elementary school.
The heroes of the stories all had their own techniques and practices that allowed them to remember things in far greater detail then you or I, and their skill were always described as infinitely beneficial. Encyclopedia Brown; the boy detective with the photographic memory, had no drawback to his heightened visual memory. Luria would have been distressed by the degree of fictionalization and overwhelming optimism with which the boy was portrayed, for he was written rather one-dimensionally as a kind of cross between superman and a 35mm camera. Then again, the book was written for nine-year-olds, so I'm sure part of the beauty can be found in its lack of realism and basis in scientific research. It turns out that reading “The Synaptic Self” in conjunction with Luria’s description of a heightened memory affected my understanding of the phenomena of heightened memory in an individual, and permanently changed the way I read young-adult fiction.
Like Madeline, I too wondered briefly about the way S.’s synaptic connections might have been subtracted or “pruned” to favor the specific connections required to result in his eidetic abilities. As she so astutely points out, given the trillions of synaptic connections we all possess, and given the process LeDoux describes of a “use it or lose it” selection of synapse maintenance or elimination, it seems quite remarkable, not that someone like S. can exist, but that more people don’t possess such specific and unique abilities as a result of the way their brains end up built.
It occurs to me, however, that perhaps there was some combination of influences on S. (both genetic variables and environmental/chemical exposures) that left him more specifically suited to the maintenance of a deeply visual and synesthetic mind. That is to say; perhaps at some point in our development every human has the capacity to develop synaptic connections based on either strong verbal ability, or strong visually associative ability (like S’s) or even perhaps some strong auditory or tactile abilities. This would mean that, as LeDoux describes on page 79, the brain arbitrarily or in accordance with generic instructions forms all kind of synaptic connections and in a kind of evolutionary way the connections that are beneficial mutations for the environment in which we live survive and receive excitatory transmitter glutamate, whereas the ones which put as at a disadvantage simply die. Thus, perhaps we can think about S. as, at some very early (perhaps even natal stage), at a metaphorical crossroads. One path would result in a rather balanced and relatively un-associative collection of synaptic connections like those you and I possess, whereas the other would result in the kind of highly imaginative, associative synesthetic mind that Luria describes. For whatever reasons then (presumably some combination of variables genetic and environmental that were highly specific to S.’s case) he took the mental road less traveled, and in terms of the way he saw and thought about the world, that made all the difference.

Friday, September 28, 2007

To rememeber or not to remember

I have always wished that I had been born with better memory. I get disappointed in myself when I can not remember the academic material I learned when I was 13. If I can not remember such material, does that mean I still learned something? However, after reading this weeks stories, I realized that being able to forget is also a blessing.

In The Mind Of A Mnemonist, Luria writes a very detailed account of a man, whom he calls S, with an incredible memory. S did not ever take notes. He could repeat, word for word, passages that are written in languages he does not understand. I could also reproduce a series (words, numbers, shapes) in reverse order. He could also readily identify which word followed another in the middle of a series. S's memory had no distinct limits. S memorized material by using the synesthetic reactions he experiences when confronted with a word, voice, or any other kind of situation. He always saw colors or light when he listened to someones voice. He heard sounds when ever he looked at a color. There were some mistakes in his memory, but these were not frequent. When he could not remember something, he saw "lines," "blurs," and "splashes." What I thought was particularly interesting was that he sometimes created a narrative with the sounds or words he had to memorize. He would place the image that a word conjured up for him in some sort of setting, such as a road. He would then place the other images along the road too. If he placed the image of an egg against a white wall, he would not be able to "see" it and so would not remember it. Therefore, his lapses in memory were due to defects in perception, not memory. I assumed that his synesthetic system of memorization was a highly advanced way of thinking. However, Luria clarifies this on page 57: "The excerpts I have quoted from the records on S may give the impression that what S accomplished was an extremely logical (if highly individualistic) reworking of the material he had to remember. But, in actual fact, nothing could be further from the truth." S used a technique of eidetic images to memorize things. His highly figurative memory actually prevents him from using logical means of recall. Not only was he not able to use logic when recalling memory, but he also had a hard time reading long passages because every word summoned a deluge of sensations.

In both Borges and Nabakov's narratives, an injury preceded the capacity to remember infinite amounts of information. I thought it was interesting that both Funes and Nabakov were thought to be highly intelligent, or just special. Borges is in awe of Funes from the very first time he sees him in '84. Nabakov states that "confessions of a synesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings and drafts by more solid walls than mine are"(p.35). He admits that his distinct trait is seen as pretentious. However, by the end of both stories it was clear that their great memories came with an equally big price.

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?"