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I have always been fascinated by brain science—long before Mom’s brain science became such a big part of our daily lives. Neurons and synapses and the chemicals that pass between and through them. The chunks that determine personality and control fight or flight. Memory and how it is stored and retrieved. The complex physics and mathematical computations that have to happen, in milliseconds, to catch a baseball. The physical, rather than ethereal, construct that is consciousness. Our brains are three pounds of mush that neuroscientists are just beginning to understand.
So it comes as no surprise to me that Mom’s brain science has been, well, for lack of a better word, surprising. When a brain starts to short circuit, weird things can happen.
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In 1993, my father had a massive stroke, compounded by the fact that he lay for no one knows how long under the kitchen table before Mom found him. He had lingering effects that, at the time, introduced me to just how complex the brain is, and sparked my curiosity ever since.
After the stroke, Dad could only see on the right side. There was nothing wrong with his eyes. Visual field loss is the term for it. The vision center of his brain in the right hemisphere was damaged. And because the right side of the brain sees the left field of vision, Dad’s field of vision was limited to only the right side.
Hold a piece of paper with writing on it in front of your face at a normal reading distance. Now close your left eye. You can still see the whole page, right? Close your left eye again, but now move the paper closer to your face until you can only see the right side of the page. If you move the page to the right, the left side of the page comes into your field of vision, right? That’s because in a normal brain with healthy eyes, each eye sees both fields of vision and sends that information to the two sides of your brain for interpretation.
Yeah, that didn’t happen for Dad after the stroke. Moving the paper to the right didn’t bring the left side into vision because his brain could no longer interpret the signals being sent by his eyes for the left side field. If I wrote him a letter, I had to adjust the left margin to the middle of the page. It was the only way his brain could read.
It’s Just Wiring
A few years later, my best friend was beating herself up because her father, near death, didn’t recognize her anymore. But he recognized other people, so my friend worried it had something to do with her.
“It’s just wiring,” I told her. “It has nothing to do with you. Something in his brain is broken. It doesn’t mean he didn’t really love you.”
This memory flits through my own brain almost daily. Like when I watch Mom struggle to unload the dishwasher. I sit at my desk, just off the kitchen and watch her. It’s good to give her daily tasks that keep a routine and make her feel useful. But some days, it’s actually stressful for her, and that’s when I step in.
Some days, she unloads just fine, even if it means I have to go hunting for stuff that she puts in odd places. No worries. But other days she gets so frustrated with herself because, “I don’t know where anything goes!” She can stand there with a dinner plate in her hand staring at a stack of dinner plates on the shelf, and have no idea where the plate goes.
What’s going on in her brain at that moment, I wonder. Is it that the visual center in her brain can’t interpret that the dish in her hand and those in the stack are the same? Or is it the sensory center that can’t sufficiently feel the shape and weight of the dish in her hand and recognize that it is the same as those in the stack? Or has she just forgotten she’s just unloaded a dinner plate in the half second it took her to pick it up and pivot toward the cabinet? I don’t know. But why isn’t it like that every day? I don’t know. It’s just wiring.
Loss of Self
I’m particularly curious about what makes Mom Mom. My greatest fear when she was diagnosed was that her memories would eventually erode to the point of a loss of self. But something unexpected has taken shape in her.
She’s almost hyper-aware of self, to the exclusion of anyone else—namely me. When she’s hungry, she’s hungry. When she’s bored, she’s bored. And it matters not one iota if we are 15 minutes from eating a dinner I planned, shopped for and worked on all day, or on deadline with a big client. Bringing these points up to her and asking her to be patient only makes her churlish.
It’s as if she’s living in an opaque bubble. Sure, if I make her a snack, or stop my project to play cards with her, I’m in the bubble now, and everything is hunky dory.
It’s The Id, Stupid
I reached way back into my college psychology courses, and did a little Googling, and see now that what’s going on with her in this bubble is not a bubble of self, or ego, but of id.
Sigmund Freud postulated that the id is the primitive part of our psyche that only needs, like a baby who is not self-aware yet. With self-awareness comes ego. In Freudian terms, ego is not egotistical or narcissistic. Ego is a balance between primitive irrational needs and realistic needs based on the external world.
I thought Mom would lose her self when she reached the point that her memory failed her so severely that she wouldn’t recognize me, or my sister, or my brother. But memories are not necessarily all that makes self. And even though Freud thought the id and ego were not physical constructs, I beg to differ. Something in Mom’s physical brain is damaged, and her id sometimes takes over. It’s just wiring.