Tag Archives: alzheimer’s

How do you decide if the deciding is already decided for you?


First, Goal Progress: In bed by around 11:45 p.m. Jan 13, Up at 9 a.m. Jan 14. Sigh. We can see what my natural pattern is.

More from Keeper: one house, three generations, and a journey into Alzheimer’s by Andrea Gillies:

I also come across some rather startling research to do with the electrical impulses that carry information between neurons. Apparently, studies of the action potentials have found that they fire up before we decide they should be doing whatever it is that we’ve asked of them: for instance, to turn a page or flip a fried egg or pick up a stone on the beach. Experiments showing this to be true were begun by the research scientist Benjamin Libet in the 1970s, and continued in 1985 in a scientific trial done with people who flexed their wrists at will and signaled the moment of deciding by marking the position of a rotating disk. Extraordinarily, it was discovered that the appropriate neurons fired up a full half second before the moment the subjects “decided.” The interval is known as Libet’s delay. In terms of the speed of the electrical impulse, a half second is a very long time. What seems to be happening is that something below or aside from consciousness is making decisions before we think we are making decisions. Something else in us, backstage of our deciding, appears to be deciding before we decide. It reminds me of a British TV series called Yes Minister, in which civil servants manipulate a member of the government, convincing him that he’s in charge when the truth is that the real decision making is going on elsewhere. In April 2008, an experiment using fMRI scanning not only confirmed that Libet’s delay exists, but went further, showing decisions can be predicted up to ten seconds before deciders “decide.” (Or course, it’s possible to argue that these are ten seconds in which the subject is observed in readiness, preparing to do something as instructed by the experimenter.)

This raises all kinds of questions for me about the nature of self and instinct and mind. If we’re not consciously making decisions, then what part of us is? (Note I said what part of us, not who.)

Another stone added to the cairn


First, Goal Progress: In bed by around midnight Jan 12, Up at 8:15 a.m. Jan 13.

I like to think about memory, maybe because I’ve never had a great one. I remember feelings, emotions, colors, and esoteric tidbits, not names, labels, and facts. I remember the jist of the conversation, but not the exact words. I might recall the conversation we had, but not remember what you thought was most important. However, it would be a mistake to think I haven’t been paying attention; I might see a pattern in your thoughts or behavior that you have never noticed.

It’s interesting to think about what goes into a memory, why we remember, what we remember. How memory is more subjective than we like to think: 10 eyewitnesses, 10 different stories. This past year I’ve enjoyed reading about Alzheimer’s and dementia. My maternal grandmother suffered from what was called Alzheimer’s: I’m not sure if that was the diagnosis or just a convenient term. We lived out west and she in Michigan, so I wasn’t around to notice the deterioration. There was a time, though, when we were back for a visit; she had accused one of her young nephews of stealing from her, which seemed unlikely. Then she began driving erratically, eventually causing accidents and driving through the garage door. That’s about all of the story I can summon. I imagine grandma’s very rural small-town community put up with erratic behavior by the Sheriff’s widow longer than had she lived elsewhere. She lived to at least seventy, and by that time had been in a home residential facility for some time. I believe my paternal grandma, who lived to be 90, helped care for her there. I tell you this because I’m not sure this is where the interest comes from, or if it’s just one of those things I like to explore, like twins, and mental illness. Probably part of me hopes that dementia is not in my future. My mom didn’t live long enough to find out if it would happen to her.

Two books that I’ve enjoyed this year:

Dancing with Rose: finding life in the land of Alzheimer’s by Lauren Kessler. Driven by guilt and a quest for understanding of her mother’s illness and death, the author finds work as a caregiver at a residential facility for Alzheimer’s patients.

Keeper: one house, three generations, and a journey into Alzheimer’s by Andrea Gillies. The story of the author as primary caregiver to her in-laws as her mother-in-law deteriorates into the black hole of the Alzheimer’s patient, and her father-in-law develops poor health, which prevent him from taking care of himself or his wife.

Both are highly personal and engaging accounts of living with and caring for people with dementia.

From Keeper:

Everything we are is the sum of our history, augmented by every new experience, each stone added to the cairn and modified by our thoughts about that stone, and about the shape the cairn is taking. Our selves are fed by our narrative, the story of our past and our imagined futures. Ask me who I am and I turn immediately to memory. It isn’t possible to answer the question “Could you tell me something about yourself? without recourse to biography. Even aside from replies that start, “Well, I was born in …” (which are the most obviously memory driven), other kinds of responses, ones that try to avoid the straight biographical—”I am intelligent, curious, anxious, and usually hungry”—also rely entirely on memory. You only know yourself because of your memory.