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The Experience

in the experience

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the experience: first-person

Memories are rich tapestries of information, but they do have their shortcomings. They are far from perfect. Look at this chart. Could you memorize the whole thing and recall it perfectly two months later? 

Picture of a table four columns by ten rows, filled with numbersPatient S., a famous psychological case, could memorize a table like this after just a few minutes of studying. In fact, he could recite the entire thing upside down and diagonally, remembering it years after he first saw it. There seemed to be no limit to what S. could remember. Every little detail stuck with him, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t forget anything he learned.

Still, S. understood almost nothing about the world. He didn’t understand patterns. The legal system didn’t make sense to him. Poetry and prose held little meaning. It was said that he came across as dull-witted and with little sense of purpose or direction in life. He couldn’t form general impressions or make meaning out of his surroundings.

That’s because one of the brain’s most crucial jobs is to throw out non-essential information and assess the big picture. S.’s brain was too occupied with the details, leaving him unable to see the reasoning and order behind things. In a strange way, forgetting is essential to human nature. And although the prospect of experiencing Alzheimer's is frightening, it does introduce some surprising experiences.

A Newness

"I've noticed that I have a large amount of appreciation for whatever I'm focused on. It is very clear and real. Look away and it is gone. Look back and it is fresh and new. I am checking this out with a red geranium blossom right now. When I look away, 'red' no longer exists except as an abstract term. No blossom image remains... But I can look again."— Laura S.

Photo of Willem de Kooning

Bright colors, simple lines, lightness and joy defined the later paintings of artist Willem de Kooning. What's surprising about these masterful works is that they were created while he suffered from a dementia most likely caused by Alzheimer's disease. The work he did during this period seems blissful, unencumbered by outside concerns and considerations, very different from the dark, complex, introspective work of his earlier years. Because Alzheimer's prohibits the formation of new memories and steals old memories, people with the disease see once familiar things with fresh eyes. A favorite walking path might appear completely new and unfamiliar. Perhaps this explains the lively works of de Kooning's late painting period, the Alzheimer's experience on canvas.

Frustration

"[I can] hardly write ten lines without blunders... Into the bargain I have not one rag of memory."— Author Jonathan Swift

Photo of Auguste D.

On November 25, 1901, Dr. Alois Alzheimer began seeing a new patient known as Auguste D. At a mere 51 years of age, his new patient was unable to remember her entire name, her husband's name or how long she had been in the hospital. After Auguste D.'s death, Dr. Alzheimer would discover plaques and tangles covering her brain and Alzheimer's disease was born. But for the time being, both the doctor and Auguste D. were helplessly confounded by her declining mental abilities. On that first day in the hospital, Dr. Alzheimer tried to have her write her name. She failed several times before she looked up at him, expasperated, and announced, “I have lost myself."

Periods of Contentment

"There is pain in forgetfulness, but sometimes there is something delicious in oblivion."— Morris F.

Photo of Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the last years of his life, Ralph Waldo Emerson was so wracked by senility that the renowned author could not even pen his own name. Oddly, he seemed to accept the loss of what most would consider his greatest asset, his mind. Amidst the disease he told a friend, "I have lost my mental faculties but am perfectly well." This is a surprising statement from a man who had earlier written about memory, “It holds us to our family, to our friends. Hereby a home is possible; hereby only a new fact has value." Emerson's acceptance of his memory loss probably had a lot to do with the thinking of the time. Until recently, people simply believed that elderly senility was a part of the aging process. However, it's possible that Emerson's apathy was also part of the disease process. Particularly in the later stages, people with Alzheimer's often become complacent, seemingly unaware of the magnitude of their loss. Perhaps this is because thoughts only last for seconds. The person with advanced Alzheimer's lives in the moment and has little ability to consider his or her situation.

Isolation

Photo of Aaron Copland

"Another really crazy thing about Alzheimer's, nobody really wants to talk to you any longer. They're maybe afraid of us, I don't know if that's the trouble or not, I assume it is, but we can assure everybody that we know Alzheimer's is not catching."— Cary Smith Henderson, "Partial View"

In his late 70s, composer Aaron Copland's memory began to visibly slip away from him. In one man's description of the elderly Copland, “He forgot questions you asked and answers he gave, and occasionally he had to be reminded where he was, but he had not lost his charm." Amazingly, the confused Copland was still able to conduct for many years after the disease's onset. In fact, he could conduct his famous work "Appalachian Spring" up until the very end of his life. Still, when his public career came to a close, the famous composer suffered the plight of many Alzheimer's victims, spending his last year in isolation. With the loss of communication skills often comes the loss of social companionship, despite the fact that human attention is craved and appreciated even during the bitter end of the disease.

A Sense of Loss

"Sometimes we miss being important - miss being needed."— Cary Smith Henderson, "Partial View"

Photo of President Ronald Reagan

In one of his regular White House checkups, President Reagan joked to his physician, "I have three things that I want to tell you today. The first is that I seem to be having a little problem with my memory. I cannot remember the other two." Although the quip was made long before Reagan began experiencing symptoms serious enough to diagnose, it's very possible that he knew his mental abilities were waning. People in the early stages often know that something is wrong. They mourn the loss of mental capabilities, the loss of daily tasks and thought processes that used to come easily and the loss of independence.