GROWING OLD IN AMERICA:
MEMORY AND THE GERIATRIC UNIVERSE
Growing old in America is no easy matter. Worse still when age ravages one’s memory with Alzheimer’s disease or other memory (mnemonic) tribulations. The quality of one’s life relies on memory. And memory, according to Alfred Rupert Sheldrake, is inherent in nature. With apologies to Thomas Gray, a plant blooms according to the “memory” in its DNA, regardless if it blooms unseen. We know what to do in the morning when we awaken because of a memory pattern we call “habit.” Our body knows what to do as food passes through our digestive system because of its memory program or DNA instructions.
Though regarded with skepticism even suspicion, morphic resonance helps aggregate disparities around us. There may be no absolute finality in what we make of those aggregations and how we remember them, but, like onomastics (knowing the name of things we encounter) gives us a sense of mastery over the uncertainties of life and in accepting that things are the way they are and not the way they are not.
Diachronic Morphic Resonance refers to the proposition that existing conditions will influence future conditions merely because they exist. In other words, the existing set of conditions that exist today will influence the conditions that will exist tomorrow. Whatever our behavior today, it will influence tomorrow’s outcomes. This proposition draws its logic from Einstein’s time-flow theory.
According to Einstein, “there is no difference between the past and the future in the 4-dimensional space-time-world. The present is only an illusion.” Illusory as the present may be, “today” is the product of the time-flow of “yesterday,” and “tomorrow” will be a product of the time-flow of “today.” Circular as that may sound, it all means that “today” influences “tomorrow” just as “yesterday” influenced “today.” This is a crucial concept in the retrieval theory of memory.
What links “morphic resonance” to Einstein is the word “diachronic” which means “across time.” Thus, “diachronic morphic resonance” means “memory across time.” We know that across time memory can “bleed out.” That is, the strength of memory dissipates, more so with the plagues of dementia, senility and Alzheimer’s disease.
I’m not sure when it started—in fact, I’m not sure that it has started. What I know is that more and more I’m experiencing (for lack of a better term) moments of “episodic amnesia,” moments when I can’t remember or muster up a word in a conversation or lecture, words that have been part of my lexicon as a teacher, nearing now almost 60 years. To explain those moments to students or friends, I joke that it’s not Alzheimer’s but “old-timers” disease that’s afflicting me, adding that I just can’t seem to find the right key-stroke to bring up a word I’m stumped on. A ripple of laughter gets me over that awkward moment. But with each succeeding episode, I’m worried that I’m at the onset of Alzheimer’s. This essay is a step towards confronting the labyrinth of memory.
Before starting, however, let me inject a historical note about the term “episodic amnesia” which I’ve used above. In 1966 I completed a work on The Stamp of One Defect: A Study of Hamlet in which I proffered the explanation that, given the clues in the play, Hamlet’s malady could be described as “episodic amnesia.”
About my apprehension that I’m at the onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia, my feeling is that like a jigsaw puzzle in reverse, my world is seemingly disappearing piece by piece—until, I presume, there are no pieces left. That may sound extreme. My wife and friends assure me that given my capacity to still teach and to write as prodigiously as I always have that the fault may be no more than a momentary synaptic malfunction. Perhaps!But I can’t help worrying that there’s more to it than synaptic malfunctions.
In a recent conversation with a musician I couldn’t remember the words “whole-fretted chords” to describe a technique brilliantly executed by a guitarist at a jazz concert I attended. I was able to get to the phrase by a circumlocution. With the fortuitous help of a fellow musician, I used words that got my point across. The words seem to have taken root again in my lexicon. But there are words lost that have not taken root again, words that have to keep asking my wife or others over and over again to help me with. Is dysnomia one of the inevitabilities of aging? Though not necessarily.
Colleagues of mine don’t think so. I remember an incident of severe dysnomia that occurred almost 25 years ago when I was a cast member of a community theater group in Mesa, Arizona. At the Gaslight Theater, on opening night of Joanne Glass’ play Artichoke, I was playing the featured role of Archie, a Canadian farmer on the Saskatchewan plain of Canada, when at the start of a crucial scene I went blank about my lines. These are moment that every stage actor fears—not remembering lines. With more than a hundred roles on state, this was the first time I had experienced such a moment. It turned out to be a moment of expressive aphasia.
Fortunately, my experienced partner on stage recognized my predicament and pulled me through the scene. I’ve not given that moment another thought until now. Could that moment have been a harbinger of the dysnomia I’m now experiencing? It doesn’t seem likely. Yet, how can I be sure it’s not?
My friends and colleagues are kind; they attribute my episodic moments to an overflowing plate of activities I’m involved in. That could be. But I’ve always worked with an over-flowing plate of activities. However, I’ve not always been 89. Perhaps I’m not factoring into the equation that I am after all 89 years old. Am I just dodging reality?
There is the reality that the day before Thanksgiving in 2009 I suffered two ruptured hematomas that had my wife not rushed me to the hospital ER I would not be here today. As luck would have it, a first-rate neuro-surgeon was on hand to immediately relieve the effects of the hematomas. The incident left my whole left side temporarily immobilized. The week in ICU after the surgery I was in a hallucinatory state causing my wife to wonder about the effects of my blood-soaked brain. I was exhibiting complete amnesia. Fortunately, after a week in ICU I began to recognize my wife, those around me, and friends who came to visit me. This was diachronic morphic resonance at work.
After 5 weeks in a rehabilitation hospital I had regained a fair amount of memory. After a week at home the void of amnesia began to fade. More so, after a grueling nine weeks of additional rehab therapy that included extensive cognitive therapy with exercises and a tachistoscope in remembering increasingly larger chunks of information to improve recall. Other exercises included associative semantic strategies of the kinds that actors use when on stage and which I was adept at after many years of experience on stage and in film as an actor.
The following summer I felt confident enough to teach in both Summer Sessions. All went well, without incident, except for moments of episodic amnesia. Perhaps what I’m experiencing is no more than the effects of the hematoma surgery. That would help to allay some of my fear about the onset of Alzheimer’s. But I don’t think so. There’s more to these amnesiac moments than meets the eye. What that is, I have yet to apprehend?
Driven by fear and curiosity, I’ve undertaken exercises to keep my brain agile and alert. For example, I’m able now to list off the names of all the presidents from Washington to Obama, an exercise I engage in every morning before I shower. I’ve always had a strong eidetic capacity, that is, the ability to remember large chunks of reading material which is why I’m concerned by momentary episodes of amnesia. I may be over-reacting here.
Clinically, these momentary episodes of inability to recall words or names are often described as dysnomia or (sometimes) as agnosia, or in severe cases as dementia. Dysnomia is an expressive language deficit, a severe form of the “tip-of-the-tongue” feeling where the brain cannot recall the desired word or name. Another descriptive term for this cognitive malfunction of language and memory is “intellectual deficit.” All of these conditions of malfunction can result from strokes, brain trauma or other neurological causes such as a learning disorder. Stress and sleep deprivation can also cause dysnomia.
Depending on its etiology, cognitive or speech therapy can improve the conditions of intellectual deficits such as dysnomia. Improving agnosia or dementia is considerably more complicated. Severe cases of dysnomia—anomia—can render a person completely unable to name familiar objects, almost as if he or she were suddenly thrust into a conversation in an unknown foreign language. Recall exercises are recommended for the improvement of dysnomia. Little hope is proffered for the improvement of other intellectual deficits.
Damage to the brain can cause dysfunction of the cortical section (Broca’s area) of the brain and can produce “expressive aphasia,” loss of the ability to produce language (spoken or written). I don’t think that’s where I’m at though dysnomia is a form of expressive aphasia. The inability of the brain to produce the proper encoded electoral signals of a word can be an anomalous glitch or a manifestation of serious trauma. Recent treatment for dysnomia suggests that as a language retrieval problem of nominal aphasia it is remediable with dopamine agonists like Ibuprophin.
Linguistically, the inability to recall a word can be described as letholexia (letho> forgetfulness and lexia> word) or lethologica. In Hamlet when the ghost is explaining to the Prince how he was “done in,” the Ghost senses that the Prince is not “getting” the gist of the narrative to which he utters “duller art thou than a leaf on Lethe’s wharf.” Lethe is the river of forgetfulness. These are the kinds of clues studded in the play that led me to the possibility that Shakespeare invested in the character of the Prince “the stamp of one defect”—episodic amnesia. Far-fetched as it seems, was Shakespeare intuiting in 1605 the symptoms of Alzheimer’s?
Knowing the meaning of letholexia does not lessen my apprehensions about my episodes with momentary dysnomia. However, knowing all of the above helps me to cope with dysnomia and to feel less embarrassed by it.
My world is still disappearing piece by piece, though the pace has abated a bit. But I’m comforted in the present, being aware of the reality of a jigsaw puzzle without any pieces—that is, only the frame of a jigsaw puzzle without a scene. But there is a strange comfort in that reality of an end, a strange comfort expressed by Robert Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra who at the end of the poem explains that he is comforted by what he aspired to be and is not—meaning that the comfort is in the aspiration, not the realization.
In the now, I can savor the sight of the puzzle in its fullness, remembering as much of that fullness as it disappears piece by piece into Broca’s void.
In 1998 at the age of 72 I suffered a life-threatening stroke. It hit me on the Sunday after Halloween while my wife Gilda and I were cooking lunch. I had finished teaching my weekend class about 11 a.m. and instead of eating-out for lunch, Gilda suggested cooking something at home. Gilda was Dean of the University Library and I was a professor of English at Texas State University—Sul Ross in Alpine, Texas, just north of the Big Bend National Park.
A little past noon on that Sunday after Halloween I was stirring some food in a pan on the stove top when I suddenly fell to the floor, my mind swirling, my vision full of double images. I had no idea what was happening to me. I thought I was calling Gilda’s name but no sound came out of my mouth. In what looked like slow-motion, I saw Gilda bending down toward me, then everything went black.
It turned out that Gilda had the presence of mind to call 911 immediately; she thought I had suffered a heart attack. Within fifteen minutes the ambulance from the regional medical center came and carried me to the hospital where the doctors on call stabilized me. They explained that if Gilda hadn’t acted so swiftly I might not have survived the stroke. I was later attended by stroke professionals at El Paso, Texas, the nearest major medical center to Alpine, Texas.
Suffering a stroke or a heart attack was the most remote possibility from my mind. I had always taken care of myself, worked out, watched what I ate. When I was sixty I was running 5 miles a day (except on weekends). When I was 67, I was extremely active with bench aerobics. And at 70 Gilda and I were still hiking in the Big Bend National Park.
What I failed to realize and what I became aware of later was that there had been portents of the impending stroke—I just didn’t recognize the signs. That past summer during a class I stopped lecturing and became aware of the incident when I came to, surrounded by my graduate students. A nurse in the class explained that I had probably experienced a transient ischemic attack—a TIA. I had no idea what that was. When I reported that incident to my primary care physician in El Paso, he blew it off angrily harrumphing that the nurse didn’t know what she was talking about. On reflection, there had been other incidents of TIAs. But the big question was: Why a stroke? Why me? Ultimately I blamed it on the tortillas.
Now, seventeen years later and a hematomic stroke six years ago, I’m back to full functionality except for my balance which is not an impairment. Other than that I’ve regained full use of my left hand, the slur in my speech has been gone for some time. The most troubling after effect of the strokes in 1998 and 2009 was my memory, but most of it has returned despite the fact that the neurologist explained to Gilda that almost half the cells for that function had been damaged by the first stroke. I marvel at the miracle of the human brain. Somehow, much of my memory had been “backed up” somewhere in the brain (so I surmise)—and I found it. Not all of it. But enough. What a neurological marvel the brain is!
During the first months after the stroke of 1998 I was an amnesiac. I couldn’t remember my name nor the names of my family. There were times I didn’t recognize Gilda. Slowly, with the help of family and friends I began to regain bits and pieces of memory, snippets of past moments. I began to remember that I had acquired a Ph.D. in British renaissance studies, that I was a professor of English, that my wife was my salvation.
For ten years I was on maintenance drugs one of which was Plavix. I regained almost full functionality. I’m back to teaching graduate students at Western New Mexico University where I’m Scholar in Residence. What I’ve come to realize is that we don’t know all the workings of the human body—especially the brain. Despite the advances in the neurosciences, the brain is still a mysterious organ with a domain of its own. I’m remembering things I don’t remember experiencing or learning. What else will I remember?
On occasion I struggle for some words, unable to find the right keystroke to bring them forth. When this happens, I chalk it up to “old-timer’s” disease, not “Alzheimer’s.” Humor helps. In the last ten years I’ve been more productive as an academic than I have in any past decade. I’m blooming where I’m planted.
The Hypothesis of Morphic Resonance (1981) proposed that through “morphic resonance” various perceived phenomena, particularly biological ones, become more probable the more often they occur, and therefore biological growth and behavior become guided into patterns laid down by previous similar events. Ergo the outcomes of previous similar events condition our ability to produce those previous outcomes via the recovery of memory. The hypothesis of morphic resonance is helping to clarify my recovery of memory.
I’m reminded here about the relationship of morphic resonance to the principles of Decision Theory, principles that governed a fair portion of my life when I was a Threat Analyst as a young Air Force officer in Europe during the Cold War with the Soviets. Decision Theory is a body of information that helps in making choices. Should I get up now or snooze for another 10 minutes? Do I want the hamburger or the Chicken-fried steak? Should I invest in Ali-Baba now or wait to see what the stock market does?
The tie-in between Decision Theory and Morphic Resonance is that decisions rely on stored memory of experiences. Stored memory (or muscle memory when the decision entails kinetic activity like walking) enables us to chew, speak, recognize people and things. No matter the subject, we are always at the effect of memory in the geriatric universe.
Copyright 2015 by Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, Scholar in Residence, Department of Chicana/Chicano and Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University. Photo of Philip De Ortego courtesy of the author, photos of brain, stroke symptoms and book cover used as “fair use” proviso of the copyright law. All other photos in the public domain.
Ortego, Philip D. , Hamlet: The Stamp of One Defect From The Stamp of One Defect: A Study of Hamlet, University of Texas at El Paso, 1966; published in Shakespeare in the Southwest: Some New Directions, Tony J. Stafford, Editor, El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1969; included in The Critical Continuum: Selected Studies in Literature by the author, Caravel Press 1986; posted on Scribd, November 6, 2009.