Saturday, March 31, 2012

Spots of Time

There are in our existence spots of time,
Which with distinct preeminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight
In trivial occupations and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired...

--William Wordsworth

I've been reading the work of the Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, in particular The Man With the Shattered World.

Published in 1972, The Man With the Shattered World documents Luria's work with Leva Zazetsky.

While a soldier in the Soviet army in 1942, Zazetsky is wounded: shell fragments cause severe damage to the occipito-parietal region of his brain.

As you can see from the image of the bones of the skull, his wound covered a fairly large region of his cranium and ultimately caused a wide range of neurological problems.
 In particular, the regions at the top and the back of the brain (the occipito-parietal lobes) regulate visual input and processing (on the right side of the parietal lobe) and spoken and written language (on the left side of the parietal lobe).

Zazetsky not only lost the right-hand side of his field of vision, but also suffered from an inability to synthesize discrete characteristics of images into a comprehensive whole.

Luria offers the following explanation:
Let us assume such a person is asked to look at a picture of a pair of eyeglasses. What is it he sees? One circle, then another, then a cross bar, and finally, two cane-like attachments. His guess is--it must be a bicycle. Such a patient cannot perceive objects, even though he can distinguish their individual features. (29)
More compelling, perhaps, is Zazetsky's own description of his struggle.  Despite the severe challenges posed by the nature of his brain injury, Zazetsky not only learned to read and write again, but also kept a journal in which he recorded his memories, thoughts and sensations.

Luria's book is a fascinating interweaving of Zazetsky's impressions and experiences with the neuroscientist's own observations.  Because his field of vision is both damaged and distorted, Zazetsky cannot process more than three letters at a time: it is impossible for him to see an entire word, so in order to learn to read again, he must read each word letter by letter.

In addition, he must struggle to remember each letter as he perceives it: because of his injury, he cannot recognize letters as such.  When he sees them, they don't appear to be Russian--he can't tell what they are, exactly, even if he is told that he is looking at Russian words.

Oddly enough, he can identify them if he recites the alphabet from memory.  So initially, this is what he does: he automatically recites the alphabet without thinking and when he gets to the letter he sees in front of him, he can identify it.

Because this is time-consuming, he eventually develops a new way to recognize letters.  Ultimately, he associates them with names or concepts that he can more readily retain in his memory:
There were three letters in particular I had trouble remembering--"s," "k," and "m."  But later I remembered the word krov ["blood"] which came to mind so often I couldn't possibly forget it.  I concentrated on this word and soon began to associate the letter "k" with it and would remember it each time.  Then I did the same thing with the letter "s"--associated it with the word son ["sleep"].  Since I think of that word every night when I go to bed, I quickly remembered the letter "s."  Before that I could never recall it. (67)
Despite his tenacity, his progress remains slow.  As he observes, "I also have to focus a little to the right and above a letter in order to see it.  That's the way I manage to see a letter, though I can't immediately remember how to say it.  My memory seems blocked, as though it has some kind of a brake on it" (68-69).

Perhaps most bizarre and unnerving are what Zazetsky comes to refer to as "bodily peculiarities" (he also experiences "spatial peculiarities" as well).  In particular, he cannot locate his own hands or feet (or other areas of the body)--he has to think of what these words refer to and then hunt for them on himself.

As he says, "I always forget where my forearm is located.  Is it near my neck or my hands? ... Say a doctor asks me to show him where my back is.  It's strange, but I can't do it" (43, 44).

He would also "lose" the right side of his body at times:
I move the fingers of my left hand, feel them, but can't see the fingers of my right hand and somehow I'm not even aware they're there.  And I get terribly upset.  I know there's something I should keep in mind--that I suddenly 'lose' the right side of my body because I'm always forgetting I can't see on my right side.  But I can't get used to that idea, so often I'm terrified when part of my body disappears. (42)
What I find so interesting about The Man with a Shattered World is that it calls into question our assumption that our identity is premised upon our memories, upon the spots of time that Wordsworth identifies as "renovating" our very selves with an inherent sense of virtue.

We assume a continuum of memory underlying identity, coherence, and even literacy, but fragmentation and "shattering" are always possible.

In the end, as The Man with a Shattered World suggests, time itself can become spotty.

But even when it does, the struggle to define ourselves continues: perhaps not surprisingly, Zazetsky originally wanted entitle his memoir, I'll Fight On.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."