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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Memory holes and madness

I decided not to mince words here because I have a point to make that you won’t really understand unless or until you’re in this situation.

  Most of us, whether young or old, have been in that spot where our memory of some person or thing has let us down. Something we’ve known all our lives won’t come into mind when it’s needed. Unaccountably it disappears. We go to introduce A to B and find that B’s name has buzzed off.

  Embarrassing. And there is no doubt that with increasing age, this phenomenon does seem to get worse. Those of us who have had brain malfunction, dysfunction or surgery, and are on medications that promote memory failure will know what I’m about.

  Generally, though, it’s not that much of a problem. We laugh about it, go on to another subject, and like magic, and usually when we’re not struggling to recall whatever it was, that forgotten thing effortlessly pops into memory.

  If we’re lucky.

  In fact, it’s not luck, it’s just the subconscious mind doing its fantastic, amazing job. There are very few things we lose forever from memory unless the brain has suffered physical injury. We need to locate and traverse the right tracks to get back to them.

  What if you suddenly find there are ‘black holes’ in your memory? (Here I use an expression I first heard from Julie*, and has come into my everyday vocabulary.) And what if there seem to be more and more of them?

  Like black holes in the universe, you know they’re there only by their effect. What does that do to your life?

  It’s more serious than it looks. Much more.

  Think of a large and complicated jigsaw puzzle, in which quite a number of the pieces are missing. As long as they aren’t there, you don’t know what was in the black holes in the puzzle and you have no obvious memory of them. Worse, you are probably not even aware there are black holes! As well, sometimes pieces of the puzzle you interpret as one thing now seem to represent something else, because vital parts aren't there. You don't even know they're missing.

  You are asked to describe the picture in the puzzle, and you do it as best you can. But with the gaps, you misrepresent it. Your brain glosses over the gap. You don’t see what everyone else does.

  Isn’t this a definition of madness? When your perception of things doesn’t agree with what seems patently obvious to all those around you?

  Do I sound like I’m off my tree, when I write this? I don’t think so. There are a lot of definitions of sanity, and a lot of ‘sane’ people disagree on them. But let that be.

  My point is that when the black holes strike, you lose confidence in your mind, your intelligence, your capacity to reason, and your whole self. Worse, you know that those around you lose confidence in at least some of those, and why shouldn’t they? If you insist something is X and they are all sure it's Y, it's a recipe for frustration. You feel they are humouring you by letting you say X is the reality, not Y; and they're doing it so you won’t get stressed by the dichotomy. But where does which leave you? And them?

  It’s lose-lose. You don’t want to be trapped by a delusion any more than those around you want you to be. But what if you are sure you are right? How much angst does that cause for everyone? And how does it feel knowing that these perception gaps are causing grief to them? Should you just shut up and swallow the frustration? Often you do. Sometimes you don't. Either way, it creates an impasse.

  Let's explore this a bit.

  The best and simplest definition of intelligence is ‘the ability to perceive relationships.’ I’m not up for debate on that one, so accept it for the moment at least. I’ve always had a good memory. After all, I spent a lifetime as a professional historian! Where would I be without good recall? I need that in order to perceive the subtle connections between all sorts of things when I write or discuss history. I take pride in seeing relationships that others may have missed, though of course it’s also possible to make false connections as well.

  When you feel confident in your own ability, you don’t mind being persuaded you have made a mistake. But when that confidence is lost, it changes things.

  My point here is this. I can’t now be sure I can recall all the pieces of the puzzle in order to see, as best I can, the relationships between them, and be able to tell you with self-confidence what the picture is about. By the above definition, this means my intelligence has also declined. I lose the ability to perceive relationships if things obvious to others aren’t there for me to tie together.

  If this is your problem, then at the very least, you and the people around you will quite rightly lose faith in your judgment. If you know you can't have faith in your own judgment any more, why would you expect others to?

  This is quite novel and frightening when you are used to having reasonable confidence in your judgment and when you are used to having others feel your judgment is sound. Doubting it, especially for what you suspect are good reasons, eats away at the very foundations of who you are.

  I now realise that some of the most famous ‘insane’ people in history were enraged or depressed about the onset of their insanity not so much because it was happening but because they were acutely aware of its effects, and they feared and resented what it was doing to their relationships with those around them.

  And there wasn’t a damned thing they could do about it except feel frustrated – not with others, but with themselves – even when that frustration seemed directed at others.

  No-one is to blame. It just feels like it. How well Shakespeare explored this theme in King Lear! 


  1. Thanks for an articulate thoughtful insight into this aspect of brain functioning, or malfunctioning. We live in an incredibly complex consciousness based on processes of biology and environment that are almost like magic.
    Science has revealed some aspects of how our brains work. We are given methods for understanding by books, films and music, as well as our experiences of life, love and learning.
    We need to have patience with our limitations, and we need to survive the impulsiveness of youth!
    Thanks for a glimpse of true understanding, knowledge and caring. Good work.

  2. And thanks to you, Ern. I appreciate your kind comment. I know you’ve been round the traps a long while but I hope it doesn’t resonate too strongly with you!

    You might notice I’ve now asterisked Julie’s name in the posting above. That’s because it happens to be a prime example of the very problem that’s the subject of this posting – as I was rejigging a bit to make it more readable, it popped into my mind that it wasn’t Julie who first used the term ‘black hole’ – it was Jean. Yesterday I would have gone strongly in to bat convinced utterly that Julie was the culprit, but now I remember Jean’s story of her weird brain experience in Dubai.

    Now you see my problem perfectly illustrated. Julie, if you now insist it WAS you who coined the term, you’re in serious trouble. No, that’s not true, I am! :)

  3. Here's something from Ram Das about memory. Painfully true, but at the same time, you have to laugh or you're finished.

    Just a line to say I’m living,
    that I’m not among the dead.
    Though I’m getting more forgetful
    and more mixed up in the head.
    For sometimes I can’t remember,
    when I stand at the foot of the stair,
    If I must go up for something,
    or I’ve just come down from there.
    And before the fridge, so often,
    my poor mind is full of doubt.
    Have I just put food away,
    or have I come to take some out?
    And there are times when it is dark out,
    with my nightcap on my head,
    I don’t know if I’m retiring or I’m getting out of bed.
    If it’s my turn to write you,
    there’s no need for getting sore.
    I may think that I have written
    and don’t want to be a bore.
    Remember, I do love you
    and I wish you were here.
    It’s nearly mail time,
    so I’ll say goodbye, dear.
    There I stood beside the mailbox
    with my face so very red.
    Instead of mailing you my letter,
    I have opened it instead.
    I love my new bifocals.
    My dentures fit me fine.
    My hearing aid is perfect,
    But, O Lord, I miss my mind.

    I laughed and cried when I heard him recite this. We're all headed in this direction, some of us faster than others. I take refuge in the Yoga Sutras which say,

    Drashtri drishyayoh samyogo heya hetuh.

    If you can say that, you're okay :).

    What it means is "The cause of pain is the union of the seer with the seen." Meaning, basically that we think we are the body, but our true identity is the consciousness which observes the body. If we can identify with the consciousness rather than the body, then the suffering of the body can be avoided (or at least mitigated). A big ask, and much easier said than done, but worth a try. There has to be some truth in all these ancient books, otherwise how did they survive?

  4. Further to all this - and then I’ll stop talking to myself - last night a young woman tweeted:

    ‘August 15-21 is "Brain Injury Awareness Week" please spread the word & help break down the #stigma you'll be helping people like me :)’

    Given that I had just posted the above about such matters a few hours before, and had never heard of "Brain Injury Awareness Week", I was curious. I went to her blog:

    which was fascinating. I responded to her tweet by suggesting she read my posting on this, and she replied,

    ‘Denis that is incredible!! Your blog post described how I feel most days ;-) ‘

    It’s amazing the connections social media can make.

    Her Twitter name is @nchristiana (Natalie)

    I’m not sure what else one can do about "Brain Injury Awareness Week" except perhaps to try to promote understanding and compassion. Too many people with brain damage have been taken for drunks and idiots and treated like criminals, even to the extent of tasering and undergoing terrible humiliation.

  5. There clearly isn't too much wrong with your brain when you can describe the problem so well. Yet I realise that is because you had the time to write it; I'd be surprised if there WEREN'T some comprehension and memory gaps happening after all the assaults on your brain and body (same thing!? see Joan's comments). Being Julie, I can say that I may/ may not have mentioned the term 'black holes' but have certainly spoken to you before about the memory gaps I suffered from chemotherapy - surprising, sudden blanks where a very common word or name should have been! Different from the usual forgetfulness. Was also reminded while reading this of the left brain right brain difference and I do remember Jill Bolte Taylor (also mentioned by Joan recently) and her enlightening description of her stroke induced enforced acquaintanceship with her right brain (I have her book if you'd like to read it). What I'm getting at in this fumbly manner is that the way we define 'intelligence' may be unfairly too aligned with left brain hemisphere characteristics. We certainly need the left brain practicalities to function in the world, but may over rely on them as our society places value on these traits over the 'dreamy' right side ones.I'm just throwing this in the mix, as it possibly is way off topic.


  6. Thanks for directing my attention to this posting, Denis. : )

    As always, you are articulate & laser accurate. "Forgetting" things is sometimes laugh-inducing, sometimes terrifying, but always on the horizon. Will I forget how to swallow today (again?), will I forget to set the timer that reminds me there's something on the stove, will I forget the name of the kid who sat next to me all through school? Different degrees of importance, but there's always the assurance I'll forget SOMETHING today!

    In my case, it's a physical injury, so I'm never sure if the hole is temporary or permanent. However, after 28 years, I've pretty much adjusted to the situation & make myself remember that I will forget (and so take precautions). It's a fact of life & part of who I am *now*. I just try to make sure it's not ALL I am now. : )

  7. I'm with Julie and was going to say as much before she said it for me. However, it's easy to talk about the right hemisphere using the left hemisphere to discuss it :). But given I'm a lefty by nature, in more ways than one, I'll say what I was going to say anyway and that is, when the left lets you down, turn right (and I don't mean politically). Revel in empathy, love, being in the moment (all of which you already excel in, Denis), marvel at the fact that you have eyes to see out of (this is paraphrasing Jill Bolte-Taylor) and forget about those plans to do a PhD in Hyperbolic Space and Quantum Physics. Enjoy the consciousness in which all experience takes place and listen to lots of music.

    As Julie said, the drugs have an enormous effect on the brain. Even two Kava caps sometimes at night to help me sleep can turn me into a zombie. Errr. That is, more of a zombie than I am normally.

    Julie, had I known you have Bolte-Taylor's book, I would have borrowed it from you. A friend in America is sending me a copy, which should be in mid air at this moment.

  8. I've missed responding to so many great comments on this topic. Oddly enough it IS partly due to black holes! But I'll try, bit by bit. At this stage, I just want you to know they are read and appreciated.

  9. Firstly, Joan and Ram Dass - So long since I've seen him - he must be getting on a bit now. I did see him in England. It must have been 1980. I wonder when he composed it? I've always liked him. And yes, too awfully close to the bone....

    I can say the Sanskrit, actually! It does need the translation to go with it, though - and the explanation, without which is seems paradoxical. The mysterious 'I' that 'owns' all this, mind and body - and soul? Some would say.... It's very easy to to turn 'own' into 'are'.

    And that's a world away from 'That, thou art!'


  10. I'm pretty sure Ram Dass had a stroke and perhaps wrote the above after that. Is that right, Joan? Yes, he's a lovely and wise, very humane man, going by his writings.

    Julie xx

  11. The Yoga Sutras are dvaita not advaita. They separate the "universe" into purusha (self, consciousness) and prakrit (nature, the material world,the body). Never the twain, or the "that" and the "thou", shall meet in that philosophy.

    Both are right. On the road to Thou art That is That Thou Are Not :). As I once tried to explain this idea to Helen Fraser, you have to unscramble eggs and separate them before recombining them into something new.

    Julie, it was before the stroke. I have a CD of Ram Dass on Death and Ageing. Cheerful subject, but he has that typical Jewish sense of humour that can find something to laugh about in the gas chamber.

    Julie, I once could not sign in under my Google Account and had to use annoymous, too. I unticked "stay signed in" on my google sign-in page, and that fixed it. Could that be your problem, too?

  12. Fascinating...lots to go away & think about...will print it out. Rosie Tipping.

  13. I just found your blog and this post in particular helped me understand my mom better. She died last year, GBM (4), lasted two months since diagnosed until passing at 57, and I always thought that I could have done more to help her communicate when her world wouldn't come out, or they were anything but what she wanted to say. It was frustrating for us, I can't fully imagine how it was for her. Thanks for helping me understand better.
    Blessings for you and your family, stay healthy and be happy. Best wishes from Buenos Aires!


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