Music and Amnesia
September 19, 2007 9:19 PM   Subscribe

The Abyss. Oliver Sacks writes about Clive Wearing (recently discussed here). [Via MindHacks.]

In other neuroscience and memory news, a new study has been published on Patient HM, marking fifty years of his participation in neuroscience research.
posted by homunculus (30 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
A video on Clive Wearing was the most heartbreaking thing I ever saw when I was in Cog Psych class. The fact that he knows he loves his wife but constantly feels he hasn't seen her in years is just devastating to imagine. Thanks for posting this.
posted by ALongDecember at 9:44 PM on September 19, 2007

God I love Oliver Sacks' writing. Poignant story.

Sacks illuminates the workings of the brain and mind so brilliantly. I feel profound admiration for his compassion, intense interest in detail and warm, rich articulation. He's one of my favorite authors. His insights have changed the way I perceive my and others' minds in both practical and conceptual ways. Excellent post, thanks homunculus.
posted by nickyskye at 9:49 PM on September 19, 2007

This sentence hit me hard:

"Can you imagine one night five years long? No dreaming, no waking, no touch, no taste, no smell, no sight, no sound, no hearing, nothing at all. It’s like being dead. I came to the conclusion that I was dead."

What a stunning article.
posted by Kattullus at 10:01 PM on September 19, 2007

There was a segment on this guy on RadioLab and it was one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever heard. I was out taking a walk with my iPod and crying my eyes out. Hearing recordings of his wife and him interacting is unbelievable. He's so passionate and distraught and in love....go listen to it.
posted by tristeza at 10:22 PM on September 19, 2007

I hate MetaFilter posts that link to a New Yorker article, because that deprives me of valuable bathroom reading material later in the week.

That said, this is good. Too good. I didn't finish reading it, it's too close to home.

I spend my time taking care of an elderly parent with multi-infarct senile dementia, Alzheimer's type. That's as close a diagnosis as we'll have until the autopsy. Her primary problem is severe short-term memory loss. She knows I'm her son, she knows her cats' names, she knows her address, her phone number, and her social security number.

But everything else gets wiped. I've determined that the window of memory encoding is about thirty or forty seconds. If I can keep her focused on something (eating lunch, taking a bath, grooming the cats) for longer than that, she'll remember having done it when I ask her about a few minutes later. Otherwise, it's gone. Like it never happened.

She'll read the mail, and five minutes later walk back to the mailbox. She'll talk to her best friend of sixty years on the phone, and five minutes later want to call her again, since she hasn't talked to her for a while.

Her best days are my worst days. On her best days, she'll be aware enough to know that something is WRONG, and she's desperate to figure out what it is. She's unmoored in time. Where's your father? Why isn't he here? (He died in 1999.)

And the most wrenching is when she turns to me, crying, and asks, "When are you taking me home? I want to go home!"

She asks this standing in the living room of the house she's lived in since 1976. The house I grew up in. Our home.

One day she won't recognize me, and that's the day part of me will die inside.

Memory is all we are. Make good ones, and hope to keep them.

Sorry for the personal digression, but this article hit me squarely between the eyes.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:05 PM on September 19, 2007 [34 favorites]

This story is almost infinitely sad, and yet deeply touching, too. To borrow Vonnegut's wonderful phrase, Clive seems "unstuck in time" because he in fact can possess no past and no future, yet he functions (after a fashion), retains musical aptitude, and is aware of his deep connection to Deborah. She, in turn, must possess an unusual flexibility in living a life alone, and yet, when she visits Clive, she enters his world on his terms, and acts accordingly.

It's a love story in many ways universal, and yet can be truly shared — and appreciated — by those two alone. "The Time-Traveler's Wife," indeed.
posted by rob511 at 11:17 PM on September 19, 2007

Memory is all we are. Make good ones, and hope to keep them.

I'll remember your comment here. Thanks, BOP.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:46 PM on September 19, 2007

BOP, that's so touching... I'm all weepy here at work. Thank goodness I'm on the night shift.
posted by pjern at 12:00 AM on September 20, 2007

BitterOldPunk, please stop making me cry at work.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 5:01 AM on September 20, 2007

But please, never apologise for your personal digressions.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 5:02 AM on September 20, 2007

I'm sorry, BOP.
posted by yerfatma at 5:04 AM on September 20, 2007

I did not mean to threadjack a good discussion about a great article. Thanks to everyone who posted their support, via email, here, and the whiny post I put on MetaChat. I love you all and I sincerely appreciate your good thoughts and wishes. But the best thing that can happen here is for more people to RTFA, think, and comment.

Thanks, y'all!
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:20 AM on September 20, 2007

This is what Sacks is best at, as far as I'm concerned: writing about what happens to our most elemental selves during catastrophic illness of the mind. He is especially gifted at writing about love and music, as in "The Last Hippie" from An Anthropologist on Mars. After reading his memoir, A Leg to Stand On, I believe this great gift owes a great deal to his own experience of being a patient with a severe leg injury, of feeling alienated from his own mind and body, and returning to wholeness only after listening to a favorite bit of Mendelssohn.

I too am sorry, BitterOldPunk. I've experienced some of the same emotions watching what happened to my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather after their Alzheimers' diagnoses. Their reactions to their failing memories were dramatically different. My grandmother, formerly pugnaciously funny and quite sharp, was constantly angry: why had we moved her things? Where were the people she wanted to see? She'd fly into such terrifying rages and because I was a child I didn't understand that she was frightened. She was so accustomed to being ahead of time, the sort of person who'd finish your sentence for you, or instantly say the hilarious thing most people would only think of on the way home from a party if at all. Being lost, "unmoored from time," as Sacks calls it, was a terror and outrage to her quicksilver mind.

My grandfather, by contrast, was less quick and more gentle before his diagnosis, more apt to be lost in his own world, so his descent was less easy to track. He gradually became more and more absent, and late in his illness whenever I spoke to him he seemed to be answering from a mild but good dream. He knew something was wanted from him -- an answer, engagement -- so he'd say something generic like "ok" or make a small joke, but always in the affirmative. He smiled constantly. For a while I sat alone with him as he died and every time he'd come to consciousness I'd see he wouldn't know who I was, but he'd smile at me and wink.

Because Alzheimers is present in both sets of my grandparents I've always assumed if I lived long enough I would experience it, and because I am more like my grandmother I've worried that I'd burn up with anger as she did, anger that hurt us all but was hardest for my grandfather. So this was the part of the article that simultaneously the hardest and most comforting for me to read:

His passionate relationship with her, a relationship that began before his encephalitis, and one that centers in part on their shared love for music, has engraved itself in him—in areas of his brain unaffected by the encephalitis—so deeply that his amnesia, the most severe amnesia ever recorded, cannot eradicate it.

I truly believe that the emotional memory of love never dies for any of us, no matter our state of mind. It made my grandfather feed my grandmother and change her diapers and accept her abuse until she died, and made him wake every morning of his life after that still crying and calling for her. It emerged from my grandmother's own deathbed, where all her terror and anger melted away and she reached out for all of us again and again. If I become unmoored myself I know it will be there, and so will music, and that after the first terror of losing myself fades that will always be the home I have to return to. Whenever I hear some form of the cliche "love is all that really matters" that's what I think of, and it's the closest thing I have to faith.
posted by melissa may at 9:50 AM on September 20, 2007 [11 favorites]

BitterOldPunk and melissa may, your comments choked me up. Thanks for sharing them with us.
posted by languagehat at 2:12 PM on September 20, 2007

melissa may, thank you.

And BOP too; just this week, after my mother told me the same story on four separate occasions, I began facing my own fears and anxieties for her. You have all my sympathy.
posted by jokeefe at 2:24 PM on September 20, 2007

BitterOldPunk and melissa may, your comments choked me up. Thanks for sharing them with us.

Seconded. Thank you both.
posted by homunculus at 6:34 PM on September 20, 2007

I can't wait until Sacks writes about the new part of the brain which was just recently discovered: the crockus!
posted by homunculus at 6:40 PM on September 20, 2007

BitterOldPunk and melissa may, your comments choked me up. Thanks for sharing them with us.
posted by madamjujujive at 7:05 PM on September 20, 2007

Great piece from a wonderful book. Clive's story has haunted me deeply.

Just FYI [self-link alert]: I interview Dr. Sacks for Wired recently about music and the brain, his own most transcendent musical experiences, musical disorders, and other matters -- the piece will be out soon. For in-depth background on his work and life, I wrote this Wired profile of Sacks in 2002.

He's a wonderful guy.
posted by digaman at 8:13 AM on September 21, 2007

I'm also all choked up.

BUT PLEASE joekeefe, get your mother looked at. There are all sorts of things you can do to slow the advance of the disease if it is Alzheimers, and there are all sorts of diseases that are quite curable that this could be a symptom of. Or it could be nothing.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:13 AM on September 21, 2007

sorry, "interviewed"
posted by digaman at 8:14 AM on September 21, 2007

Lupus-- thank you for your email and your concern-- from my reading earlier this week, it seems likely that it might just be general symptoms of aging (she'll be 75 next year) and some stress-- she certainly hasn't exhibited any other symptoms... I'm keeping watch though, believe me. I remember my grandfather slipping away into Alzheimers, and remember what that was like. And she is in regular contact with her doctor-- she just started an exercise program for a touch of arthritis in her hip. So I hope for the best. Caring for her will fall to me, so I'm taking that seriously.
posted by jokeefe at 4:14 PM on September 21, 2007

Ack. There ought to be an version of NSFW that indicates "don't read this at work if you don't want to start getting all weepy and look like an idiot in front of your co-workers".

Great post and comments. Love Sacks.
posted by trip and a half at 5:14 PM on September 21, 2007

a version... geez
posted by trip and a half at 5:14 PM on September 21, 2007

Please let us know when your interview with Sacks is out, digaman.
posted by homunculus at 8:42 PM on September 21, 2007

Will do. I got him to talk about some unusual material from his own life.

Your post was so beautiful, melissa may.
posted by digaman at 9:48 AM on September 22, 2007

BitterOldPunk and melissa may, what deeply powerful and moving comments. Thank you for sharing your lives and feelings here.

digaman, am a big fan of your work. Excited to hear about your interview.
posted by nickyskye at 2:28 PM on September 23, 2007

Thanks to you all for your kind comments. jokeefe, best to you and your mother. I truly hope she checks out okay. And digaman, I also couldn't be more excited to read your forthcoming article -- you're a hell of a writer.
posted by melissa may at 2:58 PM on September 23, 2007

thank you for this post. I love Oliver Sack's writing and having these clips and different accounts adds another dimension to understanding these difficult conditions.
posted by DamnYouSerpico at 12:35 PM on September 24, 2007

Here's digaman's interview: Oliver Sacks on Earworms, Stevie Wonder and the View From Mescaline Mountain
posted by homunculus at 9:49 AM on September 26, 2007

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