Saturday, October 13, 2007

Connections and Thoughts

The recent chapter, in LeDoux's The Synaptic Self, "The Mind Trilogy" has helped me to understand Floyd Skloot's situation a little better. I was a bit confused about the "Working Memory" but now I understand it's almost a "temporary memory storage" that allows us to complete the immediate problem put before us in a task-by-task sequential basis. From this I know understand that the reason why Skloot would get lost or confused in the middle of performing a simple exploit is because there was some sort of deficit in his working memory. Clearly Skloot's mother had more severe issues with this, as she would often (exhaustively) ask the same questions and repeat the same statements within seconds.

It is apparent that in "The Missing World" Hazel's working memory is mostly functioning and her largest impairment is in her declarative memory. I do find interesting the consistencies between the fictional account of Hazel and the empirical account of Skloot. Hazel also mentions the "shadows of memory"-- the essence of things you remembered-- knowing you once knew something, but not being able to recall the actual thing. I often wonder if this is an implicit function. Hazel got the "sense" things weren't right, that Johnathan's account of what had happened was off. Could this be a tactic developed by the brain, that in the event the brain cannot remember, we still can get a "feel" for what we had once "known" as means of self-preservation?

Charlotte's discussion of pondering whether or not it's best to forget certain things caused me to remember S. who had to train himself to forget and Skloot who discusses how it is necessary for the brain to discard "useless information" and how this process can run rampant causing us to forget "everything". This reminded me of the discussion we had in class about pharmaceutical pills used to suppress traumatic events in ones life. This got me thinking, if our memory makes us who we are, when we suppress certain memories we are actually shaping who we are. I wonder if, we can use these sort of suppressants as a means of artificial selection. Of course it would be unethical to dictate what a person should and should not remember from birth, we clearly see this through Johnathan. Obviously his plan backfired because of the blatant lying, lack of understand of memory and outside interferences. But in an isolated situation it would be interesting to see the results.

We Are Never Aware of Processing--Until the Processing Goes Awry

As some of you could probably tell from class last week, I am not Floyd Skloot's biggest fan (see my response to Matt's blog of last week for more on this topic). Given the problems he had with both short- and long-term memory I found him to be an unreliable narrator, inconsistencies in his text added to my unease, and, while I understood that these were separate essays put together in one book, the repetition just got on my nerves and I wondered why an editor didn't step in to smooth over some of these problems.

I tried to approach A World of Light with an open mind: I was going to be less stubborn in my definition of memoir and less critical of a man who, despite brain damage, can write beautifully. This good attitude lasted until the second essay. Why must he be so repetitive, I wondered? Why do we need to be told in every essay that his mother, Lillian, asks the sames questions over and over again. Is it Skloot's own brain damage preventing him from moving on to new territory? Is he trying to give his readers a taste of what it feels like to either have Alzheimer's, or to care for someone with the disease? If so, we get the point already. Skloot would have known that, like his previous book, his new essays would be published in one collection, and I still can't figure out why they weren't edited to remove some of the tedium. I was overjoyed with the essay "The Simple Wisdom" about his mentor, Thomas Kinsella, because it was something new and different, and literally cried, "Hallelujah!" when reading "A Stable State," in which he claims to be done writing about his illness.

Moving on isn't just something Skloot needs to do with the content of his writing, it's also what he needs to do in regards to his mother. When in my frustration I asked myself, "How is this book different from In the Shadow of Memory," I kept thinking he was speaking more psychologically in these essays, like his insights were the direct result of psychotherapy, especially in terms of his conflicted relationship with his mother. This seemed most true in his essay "Fittings," in which his struggle to come to terms with his mother's state was as tedious as his repetitiveness, and once again I wondered if his own brain damage prevented him from being more accepting. (And, in the debate over what constitutes nonfiction, I have to point out the Victoria's Secret scene on page 36. Women may surreptitiously try on panties [ew] but a salesperson is certainly not going to participate by bringing anyone a thong to try on! If a nonfiction writer is going to make stuff up it has to at least be true to life. I also couldn't help but think, after reading page 180, lines 4-5, "Really? You simmer kale in the morning? That's some breakfast.")

I am not a completely heartless beast, though, and I did sympathize with Lillian. When we read about the people who suffered from Korsakov's I did not realize people with Alzheimer's experienced the same extreme symptoms. Most poignant, I thought, was her ability to remember songs, even expanding her repoitoire before beginning to lose virtually all of her music. Like Skloot's passion for baseball, Lillian's passion was the theater; if Skloot's memory were to deteriorate significantly, I bet he'd rattle off baseball stats the way his mother sang songs.

I was just as happy to be done with The Missing World as I was to finish Skloot, but for different reasons. I enjoyed this book, yet Livesey succeeded in making me so uncomfortable that I couldn't wait for it to end. I think the portrayal of amnesia was probably pretty accurate, especially the way Hazel describes on p. 144 living in three worlds: the world she remembers; the world of shadowy memories, people or events she couldn't quite grasp; and the missing world, all that had vanished. (Lillian's Alzheimer's, on the other hand, started out similarly, until she was left with the present world only, not even aware of the missing worlds.) I believe Livesey did her homework (notice her nod to doctors like Sacks on p. 145, when Hazel says she can imagine her doctor contemplating the article he would write about her case) and was especially struck by Hazel and Charlotte's conversation on p. 195 about the relationship between memory and space, something we've read about in LeDoux and Luria's account of mnemonic S. She also did a good job making memory an important theme for all the characters: Charlotte comparing herself to Hazel, wondering if she might prefer to forget the bad times (and occasionally, as she describes on p. 214, actually forgetting the events that occured after she ran into her ex with his new girlfriend, although in Charlotte's case you can probably assume alcohol had some affect on her memory); Freddie's suppression of his past; and Jonathan's utter inability to learn from the past, echoing Charlotte's statment on p. 175: "We repeat what we remember. Only forgetfulness sets us free."

Chapter 7 of The Synaptic Self gave me a deeper understanidng of both Hazel and Lillian. Lillian was left with no working memory, an inevitablity of Alzheimer's, I think, because working memory depends on long-term memory. Because Hazel did have working memory, her accident and seizures probably didn't affect her frontal lobes, but I'm guessing different types of amnesia can occur due to damage in different parts of the brain. In LeDoux's explanation of working memory, visual stimuli seem to play such an important role that I wondered how people blind from birth create memories. Do other senses fill-in? And any other animal lovers in class were probably struck, as I was, by the section on consciousness. My cat only has to get in his carrying case once a year, but he remembers it's a place he'd rather not be, and he decides to fight and run away. He also knows that if I kiss his head once, leaving his head bowed will result in more kisses, which he likes. Even cats can be trained, and doesn't that have something to do with memory?

On page 192 of The Synaptic Self, LeDoux attributes to neuroscience pioneer Karl Lashley the idea that "we are never aware of processing, but only of the consequences of processing." Based on the experiences of Floyd Skloot, Lillian, Hazel, and everyone else we've read about in this course, I'd say we are never aware of processing--until the processing goes awry.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Living in the Cracks of Memory

Last week, we were first introduced to the disturbing concept of amnesia, and the idea of losing all your memories, or at least your explicit ones; being unable to consciously frame yourself in place and time, remember what you did last week, even what you said a few seconds ago. You can't even remember outwardly what you like or dislike (for example: damn, these new cherry ices in Bates are good). You may have some implicit recollection of past events or experiences, but you cannot call them up at will; your mental filing cabinets are dinged and battered. It's possible that a purely sensory reflex could summon traces of something you did or experienced, but even if it did, you cannot contextualize it within the larger structure of your life. In short, you are cut loose of your orientation and mental mooring, becoming lost in the places you used to know the best, having to struggle to achieve even simple tasks.

Is Bunuel (quoted in LeDoux) correct when he says that your memory is everything? Would having a vague, implicit self-knowledge help, if experiences grooved too deeply into your brain to be completely destroyed somehow managed to surface? What if you are lost in time, such as the Korsakoff syndrome sufferers -- or, like Skloot's mother, you are completely in the moment, a blank slate, forgetting events as soon as they occur? Can anything cumulative begin to regroup in your brain, or you Sacks' Lost Mariner all over again, sailing a complex sea of life and events without the steadying map that your organizing brain provides? Would it be possible to learn from your mistakes, organize experiences, and form deep personal connections if you did not have a wealth of backlogged information to draw on? Compare it to a blank book (or Word document, whichever you wish). Having nothing there will give you nothing to "read." While memory is faulty in the normal course of operations, and can add paragraphs, delete letters, and mix sentences up into syntactic gibberish, amnesia aggressively culls the pertinent information into confusing snippets that you can't "read" at all.

With this disease, your mental books are left scribbled and defaced. Is it possible to edit them back into any sort of coherency? This week's readings focus on how to reassemble the shattered pieces of the mind, and make some progress in how to cope with amnesia. Skloot, for example, has provided himself something of a stabilizing groundwork by re-learning to read and write. Since he was a writer previously, this allows him to tap into an old passion and fluently and elegantly file dispatches from within a permanently fractured psyche. It seems impossible, reading In the Shadow of Memory and A World of Light, that this man can be brain-damaged; he writes with a grace and poise that those of us with our neural circuits intact can only envy. Even more astonishing is his ability to seemingly remember what he is forgetting; he chronicles his struggles to find a missing bookbag or car key, for example, all the while conveying to us that he knows what the object of his search was; but could not consciously recollect it then.

The two figures who seem to bear the most comparison in this week's reading are Lillian Rosen, Skloot's mother, and Hazel from The Missing World. Both are women caught in a position of vulnerability due to their memory shortcomings, and both have a vague sense that something is wrong with where they are. They are moving in opposite directions in regards to their conditions, however; this is clearly exemplified to a much greater degree in Lillian, who has a memory span equal to Dory's and has no way to scratch out a deeper understanding of her situation. She is unsettled when told that her son has been married for nine years and comes to see her every week, because she can no longer process the idea of time. However, within seconds she has forgotten it, and approaches the world with a ready cheer never seen when she was still mentally capable.

Skloot desperately yearns to have a proper mother-son interaction with her, something he was denied earlier in life, but although he visits her faithfully every week, he is running in place. She never remembers him or his visits, and although she is now more mellow and tractable than she has ever been, this is nothing that can be improved or built upon. She lacks the mental volumns to remember who and what he signifies to her, aside from a transient pleasure at seeing his face ("Oh, Floyd! This is the happiest day of my life!") Clearly some of her implicit memories remain; she is not yet completely groundless, as she knows that he is her son and some of the very basic facts of her life, but she has been disconnected completely from her past with little hope of retrieving it. She doesn't remember that she lived in New York for all of her life until last year, she doesn't remember who or what she was then, and exists as a continually self-renewing entity; she is like Clyde, who thinks that each moment heralds a new awakening. Conversely, it is her amnesiac son who is charged with the thankless and hopeless task of trying to keep her oriented in the present. Skloot mentions how much he dreads his time with her, since he sees so many shades of his own future in her untenable situation. Will he, already quite significantly damaged, be consigned to the looming specter of The Home in a few years, left to while out his own decline into darkness, not even recognizing the faces of those closest to him?

In contrast, Hazel is still a relatively young woman who has most of her mental functions intact with the exception of the blanket amnesia carpeting her past few years. She's aware that something is wrong with her, and she is relatively operational. She has the ability to create and store new explicit memories, and has the mental wherewithal to question her situation and to be (rightly) suspicious that a great part of it is being kept from her. It may be a problem of the fictional narrative, but a complaint was mentioned in class last week that the period of the amnesia is too clean-cut and that she should at least regain some vague memory by triggering events. However, she already does have the sense of wrongness, but is unable to translate this into specific events in the past; I for one think this is as accurate a portrayal of amnesia as a non-neurologist could write, and Livesey's intent, as with Skloot, isn't to get to the scientific nuts and bolts of the case but rather to explore the human cost of the brain machinery going awry.

Hazel lacks the ability to reconstruct her "missing world" from the inside, but Charlotte and some discovered papers remind her of what Jonathan has done to her -- destroyed her choice of career to keep her with him -- and allows her the perspective to see that he is attempting to do it again. It's very difficult to imagine that what he feels for her is love, despite his constant insistences -- he is a controlling, sociopathic man who is attempting to keep her trapped in the broken pieces of her mind when she is finally beginning to have the ability to move beyond it, and he rapes her in an absolutely chilling scene, completely convinced that what he's doing is for "love." The end of The Missing World provides a glimpse to the answer of the question if Hazel will ever reach Skloot's plateau of functionality and love -- it seems as if Freddie's (healthy) attraction to her could function as Beverly did for Skloot. She transitions from being the Lillian of the piece to the Floyd, and all we can hope for her at the close of the book is that she finds a way to patch together the cracks as he did, and live -- if not a completely functional life, then at least one that is full despite its flaws.