Saturday, November 24, 2007

Defining the Undefinable

Sorry I just have to say how fast this semester has gone by! When I finished The Echo Maker and then looked at the remaining course readings all on the same page. I remember wondering if we would get through them all and I guess we're almost there!
I think Powers had trouble ending this book. Did anyone else find that? I found myself wondering why he spent so much time on Barbara and Weber and the unfolding of emotions the reader didn't have enough basis to understand. The destruction of land and water, the extinction of cranes, relationships, the brain, what else can possibly go wrong? Nothing is really defined until we lose the obsession we had in the first place to define it. Karin has been looking for Mark to find her and then when he comes back for a little while in the end it is less than epic. It doesn't need anything more, they are reunited as brother and sister in a way that is completely sibling, another definition that needs no explaination. The way that Powers leaves out history in The Echo Maker is really interesting. Capgras is the only aspect in the novel that has an origin. Some history of the family dynamic is given in the first part of the book but it mainly deals with the ligistics of the accident. I did like the fact that I didn't know how the book was going to end until the end, but Barbara was responsible for it and I don't think that was ever dealt with. At the same time, how much would it have helped if they knew that she was the one who caused the accident?
The readings this week had a domino affect in my brain. The readings on confabulation and the varied definitions that are given to this state of mind really intrigued me.
Feinberg- "an erroneous yet unintentional false statement."
Talland- "false verbal statement about facts."
Berlyne- "a falsification of memory occuring in clearn conciousness in association with an organically derived amnesia."
Berios is not convinced that all confabulators have an memory problem.
Wegner- "convenient stories made up to fit the moment."
Mercer- "a necessary (though not sufficient) prerequisite for confabulation is impaired memory function."
I thought this was interesting because is there a universal definition for confabulation? For Capgras? Is it definite that we need to have some sort of impaired memory to be a comfabulator?
In all of these definitions false is the common denominator. I can't help but think that Barbara convinced herself that she was doing good all along. Her intentions, to her, were completely justifible. Maybe that's the part that bothered me, in the wrapping up of the end, nothing was really wrapped up, no remorse, no real 'I'm sorry's' just straight up facts; strangely being the exact opposite of confabulating. Maybe its just that when Barbara is around everyone loses their mind. Weber obviously forgets the life he has built with Sylvie, Karin doesn't know what to think, and Mark is trying to get her a job.
The symbols that are used to help the chapters in Brain Fiction, are the same types of symbols Powers includes throughout the book with the use of Cranes, and the diminishing of land equalling the diminishing of life. What do all these symbols really mean? Do they help us with the texts or are they just a way of using other words to do something that explaination might easily do?

Capgras', Fregoli's, Cotard's, Oh My!

While reading, I made hundreds of connections from this reading to other readings, things we discuss in class etc., but when I looked back on all of the pages I folded or highlighted, I can’t seem to recall what I wanted to write about them. My memory has really been failing me, which I suppose is a connection to our class in itself. I managed to salvage half of what I wanted to share with you all, so here goes.

I find it interesting that each sub-story relates to a syndrome the book and our class have been discussing. On page 347, Karin has this devastating revelation that zings throughout her body during the crane debate. What if everybody had Capgras’? I think the characters in the book express the fear we joked about in our last class. Orienting yourself so fully in a disease or syndrome can almost make it contagious; it appears as if everyone has it. On page 353, Powers draws a parallel to Fregoli’s syndrome. Weber’s talking to Sylvie about how Barbara reminds him of someone, and until then, he hadn’t been able to put his finger on whom. Turns out, she reminded him of himself (would a patient suffering from Fregoli’s syndrome ever have this mistaken reminder? Is that another syndrome?) This reminds me of the two books we read by Margot Livesey. She made her undiagnosed characters appear even more ill or affected than the so-called “sick” characters.

Mark suffers from the array of syndromes we read about in Chapter 5 of Hirstein’s book. He lives through a years worth of Capgras’ syndrome, only for it to get worse. It triggers Fregoli’s syndrome, and eventually Cotard’s syndrome. Reading about Cotard’s in Hirstein’s book made it seem really unrealistic to me. Powers illustrated the severity of the syndrome in an urgent way. When Mark calls her in the middle of the night, I wanted her to go get him! I wouldn’t believe in his safety, despite how much he reassured me. I have some questions about Mark’s ailments. Might this be a typical series of events for actual Capgras’ patients? Is it normal for a person to experience all three syndromes or was this just a particular case? I remember Weber saying that accident induced Capgras’ is a rare occurrence, so it makes sense if this is case specific.

There are a couple of things I don’t feel resolved about. On page 374, very briefly, only a line, Karin asks is Cappy ever touched Mark. Is this the slightest allusion to sexual abuse? What would that mean for the story, the relationship between the characters, Mark’s personality? Why was this line included? The second thing that has been bugging me is Daniel. He was the dullest character for the first 300 pages, I hated reading about him. He didn’t respond much to Karin’s tooling him around; he didn’t feel like a realistic character. But then all this crazy information drops on you like a bomb. Mark accuses Daniel of homosexuality and bestiality. And I just wonder, are these theories grounded? Is this to show the failure of Marks mind, does it have any real significance? Why would this be included in the story?

After Hirstein’s chapters, I am even more curious about this creation phase. The example is given that two people can sustain the same kind of damage and one will confabulate while the other will not. What does this mean? Is confabulation a good or bad thing? Does it show a healthy brain trying to overcome an illness or does it show an unhealthy brain? Will we find out more about a patient when they confabulate? Would a doctor rather see a patient confabulating (after suffering from such damage) or not? On page 196, it is mentioned that patients who spontaneously voice confabulations are sicker than the ones who only confabulate when questioned. I guess this would prove that the more the confabulation occurs, the worse off the patient is, but isn’t being vocal better than being non-responsive at all? I think I’m not getting something here. Hirstein seems to be repetitive so you can learn things, but doesn’t go far into the detail that he should.

On 199, it is made clear that a patient that confabulates can sometimes unconsciously tell the truth. Even though I understand his points on this matter, why can’t the patient be noted on being truthful? It’s not like the patient is consciously lying and accidentally telling the truth. It’s all unconscious!

One last thing on the last few chapters or Hirstein’s book… Did anyone else detest the structure of “if p then q” mathematics symbolism? It made everything twenty times harder to understand. I came to Sarah Lawrence for a reason, guys.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

This is weird

Put on headphones, make sure everything in the room is quiet, and listen to this. It's short, don't worry. It's a 3-D sound thing, and although it's really cheesy (fake Italian accents), it's really powerful. The narrator explains some things about why your brain processes the sound in the way that it does, but maybe Elizabeth can expand upon it? I feel like it's related to everything we've been discussing in class, especially in The Echo Maker.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Powers And Ethics

(I posted this last night, but when I came back to check things today it was gone! Or maybe for some reason it's not showing up on my computer, so forgive me if I post it twice, I just want to make sure it's on here!)

To be honest I wasn’t quite sure what it was that troubled me about the second part of Richard Power’s novel “The Echo Maker” until I read Madeline’s post below. I’ve been sort-of rushing through the book, and so it’s left me with vague impressions rather then completely formed thoughts; I recognize that there are broader implications and themes represented within the complexly woven plot, but I’d be hard pressed to put a name or a label on some of those ideas.
Thus Madeline’s post really helped me process my own conflicting feelings about the Sacks character presented in Power’s novel, and allowed me to actually solidify my reactions into an actual opinion:
Like Madeline, while reading I found myself confronted with similar questions about the moral implications of, and possible motives behind, Sack’s work. As she so astutely points out, Power’s depiction of a man who makes a living doing exactly what Sacks does not come off as particularly positive.
And, as Madeline points out, calling Sack’s work into question also called into question my understanding of my own motives, even for taking this class. Why is it that I found myself so engrossed in these narratives? Why is it that Sack’s work is so broadly read, that his newest work has so quickly become a NYT Best-seller? Why is it that whenever I describe my reading assignments to friends and family they are fascinated and want to hear more? I recently read “Don Quixote” for another class, and let me tell you, I never found myself in a conversation where someone said, “Really you’re reading Cervantes? Tell me more…”
What is it that draws us to these stories? Is it, as Madeline wonders, some kind of sick, sideshow fascination we all have? Are Sack’s books the written equivalent to a circus freak-show? Are the case-studies simply a more socially acceptable version of “Ripley’s Believe it or Not”?
I want to believe there’s more to it then that. For one thing, the stories we hear from people like Sacks and Luria are inherently dramatized. They allow us to stretch our imagination in all kinds of ways, and they make for fascinating tellings and re-tellings. (When I first read about the results of Mark’s brain trauma all I could think was; “This is just like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers!’) I have a feeling that these stories would be told with or without Sack’s writing, simply because they often lend themselves to being told.
But even beyond the basic draw of the dramatic, I think there’s something personal about the narratives we’ve read which allows us the opportunity to be more then mere voyeurs into the misfortune’s of others. I think Sacks recognizes something deeply personal in these stories. He grapples with a scientific and spiritual understanding of the self, and tries to come to grips with how we understand the human soul in relation to the human physiology. To some extent one could argue that Sacks capitalizes on the tragedy that befalls others and the fears of people like you and me (since we’re all pretty terrified by the idea of losing our very selves due to some unpreventable brain damage.) But would Sack’s work be half as successful as it is if it lacked the kind of deep empathetic tone and philosophical searching which characterizes his work? If it were grossly sensationalized or paired down to a simple grocery-list of terrible symptoms I doubt it would be so widely read. It requires that human element, and I believe it's that same human element which saves it.
Part of how I can justify both Sack’s impressive body of work and my own interest in the field is my hope that on some level these narrative efforts are still about an emotional connection between people. As readers of Sacks we may in fact be pulled in by the strange and bizarre complications of brain damage, but we are also asked to sympathize, to attempt to understand and to theoretically place ourselves in a similar position. We ask ourselves: what would this be like? How would I experience something as profound as Dr. P or Mark? Could I withstand this? And I think in the end we arrive at the question: now that I know, what can I do?

Double Echo

As the Echo Maker moves into its second half, we are presented with the character of Weber. This character who is modeled on Oliver Sachs is an interesting turn in the novel. After reading about Karin’s perspective on her brother’s injury and her alarm and panic when he fails to recognize her, it is refreshing that Powers presents the medical take on Mark’s case. It is amusing to read the fictional portrayal of Sachs in Powers’ book after reading so many of Sachs’ case studies, but I think that Powers does a good job in staying true to the essence of Sachs. Powers describes him as “…a cross between Charles Darwin and Santa Clause…” (101). I couldn’t have described him better myself. Like Sachs, Weber is at ease with his patient, and Mark is able to trust him, even if he can’t trust the “imposters” around him.
When Dr. Hayes and Weber are reviewing Mark’s brain charts, it brought me back to our discussion in last week’s class. We were talking about how the emotional self is really connected to everything having to do with our functioning life. Powers’ writes: “Getting all associations for a face without that gut feeling of familiarity. Pushed to a choice, cortex has to defer to amygdala…’So it’s not what you think you feel that wins out, it’s what you feel you think’” (131). This is a very well articulated point—a point that is true with all human beings, not just those with Capgras syndrome.
The amygdala is an emotion site in the brain. Joseph Le Doux’s work on emotion was highly focused on activation in the amydala. He has mostly studied fear, but it is clear that many emotions also have neural correlates that focus on the amydala. The higher regions of the brain in the cortex, the frontal lobes are often called the executive part of the brain. In Capgras syndrome, the theory is that the emotional neural circuits are disconnected from the higher cognitive circuits and without communication between them, the patient suffers from a lack of emotion when he or she looks at a beloved family member or spouse. The inability to feel anything for that person creates the idea that he or she must be an imposter or double. Weber says in the novel, “I have always found it worthwhile to consider a delusion as both the attempt to make sense—as well as the result—of a deeply upsetting development” (132). Weber is talking about something which is called “confabulation” in neurology. Capgras’ is usually the result of right brain lesions. Confabulation is an explanation created by the language regions in the left hemisphere to explain what the patient is feeling. It isn’t lying. It’s an attempt to make sense of what a person feels when he looks at loved ones whom he recognizes but feels nothing for.