When Is Forgetting Natural or Dementia?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 25, 2016

This morning I sat down to write an essay, “What are the Most Important Concepts You’ve Learned Reading Science Fiction?” I was going to base it on Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany. I knew I’ve mentioned Empire Star many times on my blog, so I searched on that title. That’s when I discovered I had already written, “What Are The Most Useful Concepts You’ve Learned From Science Fiction?” And it was just over a year ago! How could I have forgotten that? Even the titles are almost identical (but not quite).

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I’ve written 1,039 essays for this blog, and I’ve written hundreds more for other reasons. Let’s call it 2,000 essays. At what point is forgetting what I’ve written something natural, and when is it a sign of impending dementia? Occasionally, I’ve rediscover essays I’ve written and have no memory of writing them. Sometimes reading them brings back vague memories, sometimes not. Who remembers every meal they’ve eaten? Some forgetting is natural. Who can remember 2,000 of anything? Has any writer forgotten a whole novel?

Sometimes I know I’ve written an essay and intentionally rewrite it hoping to do a better job. Not this time. I thought I had a new idea. And I don’t think I could do better if I tried again. In fact, I was planning something smaller.

I don’t think I have dementia, but I wonder about the dynamics of forgetting. One of the fascinating aspects of getting older is learning my limitations. Everyone has limitations, but they’re less obvious when we’re young.

I wonder what the second essay would have been like if I hadn’t discovered the first.

Have I written this essay before?

JWH

Robot and Frank–The Best Science Fiction Film Since Gattaca

When I was growing up in the 1950s I was sure flying in a spaceship would be in my future.

Now that I’m getting old, I wondering if a robot will be my companion for my waning days of life.

Robot and Frank is a little movie about a man coming undone.  That’s what getting old and dying is all about, coming undone.  Whether we spend our last days in dementia is a matter of luck.  Frank, an ex-con and jewel thief, played by Frank Langella, is not so lucky.  His mind is unraveling too.  Frank lives alone and barely makes do.  Frank’s son, played by James Marsden, must drive ten hours to check up on Frank every weekend, neglecting his own family.  His solution?  Give Frank a robot.

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Most science fiction fans will not think Robot and Frank much of a science fiction movie, there are no explosions, chases, superheroes or saving the world.  No one even saves Frank from dementia.  So why do I claim this is the best science fiction film since Gattaca?  This is a story Isaac Asimov could have written for Astounding Science Fiction in the 1940s.  As far as I can tell, this little robot, which is never given a name other than robot, follows all the three laws of robotics.

But Robot and Frank is more than a modern day Asimovian tale.  The film explores what it means to be a human losing his intelligence while a robot is gaining its awareness.  Robot and Frank is not sentimental, or even particularly cute.  This is an adult story.  I wonder if anyone under 50 will even understand it.  Unless you’ve experienced memory loss, unless you’ve cared for a dying parent, unless you have first hand experience of becoming helpless,  I doubt you’ll empathize much with Frank.  Robot and Frank is for an audience that has often said, “I’m having a senior moment.”

Oh, don’t worry, there’s enough of a story for a person of any age to enjoy this delightful movie, but I tend to think, only those of a certain age will feel deeply moved.  Middle age viewers might be horrified by the fear they will one day have to care for their aging parents, and I bet some of them might watch the film and think about opening a savings account to start collecting money to buy a robot.  I know I wondered if saving for a robot might be a better use of money than paying into nursing home insurance.  The Japanese are working full steam ahead on developing androids.

Robot and Frank is set only slightly in the future.  The closing credits shows clips of real robots being tested.  However, the mind of the robot in this film is very far from what we can create now.  That’s why the film is science fiction.  The robot is halfway to Data from Star Trek.  Somewhere between R2D2 and 3CPO.  I don’t know if we need to reach the Singularity to get this kind of intelligence in a helper bot, but I don’t think it’s in the near near future.  Maybe 2025?  I’ll turn 74 that year.

When you watch Robot and Frank, you’ll have to ask yourself, “Will I be happier with a robot or human caretaker?”  At first you think the son and daughter are shirking their duty but by the end of the film, you might change your mind.  Frank gets quite attached to robot, and spends a lot of time talking to it.  But who or what is he talking to?  But who or what is Frank talking to when his son or daughter is with him?  What is consciousness?  When we’re alone, and our days are dwindling, what kind of companion do we really want?  Are we wanting to listen, or are we wanting to be listened to?

Yes, what we want is a spouse we’ve spent our whole life with.  After that we want our children.  But what if we don’t have children, or a spouse?  Is a personal robot better than an impersonal nurse?  Robot is able to observe and understand Frank.  And isn’t that what we’ll want?  Someone to know where we’re at, no matter how Swiss cheesy our memory becomes?

I found Robot and Frank tremendously uplifting.  I left the theater feeling mentally accelerated and physically better than when I walked in.   We will all come undone.  We will all have to deal with it.  Suicide is one way to avoid the issue, but this movie doesn’t consider that path.  Frank’s mind keeps unraveling, but he lives for moments of being himself.  The movie suggests a robot might help find those moments.

JWH – 9/17/12

Living in a 2D World

I’m reading The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks, and his chapter on stereoscopic vision made me think about my own vision and how I live my life.  I have a bad right eye and I have poor stereoscopic vision.  When I close one eye I don’t notice any difference.  I was told when I was young that my mind compensates with a pseudo-sense of 3D.  Dr. Sacks spends quite a bit of time talking about how much he loves his stereoscopic vision, that he’s even a member of New York Stereoscopic Society and has been a lifelong collector of stereoscopic cameras and viewers.  When he lost vision in one eye he wrote quite eloquently about what it means to live in a 2D world after being so attuned to 3D reality.  He also chronicles a patient that spent most of her life in a 2D world, and acquired 3D vision late in life.

The Mind's Eye by Oliver Sacks

Sacks mentioned several times in chapter 6 that many people have weak stereoscopic vision and have learned to compensate and don’t even know what they are missing.  I guess I’m one of them.  But then I got to thinking about my visual world.  I spend all day working in front of a computer, and all evening either at the computer, TV set, or reading books, and that means I spend a majority of my day looking at 2D fields, either of LCD or paper.  I also love paintings, cover art on books, CDs, LPs, magazines, and photography.  I also have a tablet computer and iPod touch – more 2D living.

I wonder if my lack of 3D vision pushed me into enjoying 2D hobbies and jobs?  I love hi-rez computer screens.  I’m happiest when I’m immersed in one of my 2D worlds.  But I’m not alone.  Is all our gadgets and screens pushing us all into preferring a 2D world?  If I had been born with great vision would I have become a bookworm and computer geek?  From reading The Mind’s Eye we are warned very vividly to expect a lot of changes and adapting to failing bodies and brains when we get old.  All his case histories are about people adapting, so I assume I adapted before I even knew I was missing anything.

I can’t recommend The Mind’s Eye highly enough.  It’s fucking intense.  It’s the scariest book I’ve ever read.  Most people will find this book immensely depressing and horrifying.  Zombies and vampires are kittens and puppies compared to what awaits us in old age.  It scares me and inspires me at the same time.  It’s about people with various kinds of brain damage, usually from dementia, stroke, aging, birth defects, etc., and how they coped when their way of life was greatly disturbed when one day one of their abilities were taken away.

What’s funny is most of the people that Sacks writes about deal with their disability with great bravery, but Sacks tells us how frightening and depressed he got when he chronicles losing vision in his right eye.  But even with all his physical failings, this 79-year-old man does more each day in old age than I ever did on any day in my prime. 

That’s why this book is so inspiring.  We’re all going to die, and more than likely, we’re all going to see our bodies and minds deteriorate before we get to take that long dirt nap.  It’s going to be painful, scary, depressing and hard.  But Sacks tells us stories about how people go through horrible conditions.  If I have a stroke in my future, then I’ve very glad I read this book.  I once had a stroke like incidence and the details in this book explained what happened to me.  For a short time I lost all language awareness.

We are used to thinking that aging means failure of our physical health.  But our brains wear down too, and in many ways.  Sacks profiles people who have lost the ability to read or recognize faces or objects, things when we read about them sound bizarre.  But if you’ve ever known people who have had a stroke, or dementia, you’ll recognize all of these horrifying failures of brain functionality.

We like to think of ourselves as little souls inside a body.  That if we lose a leg or have a heart attack it’s something that’s happening to our body.  We seldom contemplate what happens when our soul comes apart?  If you woke up one day and couldn’t tell the difference between your wife, mother and daughter, how are you going to react?  Quite a few of these stories are about people who have healthy eyes but can no longer process vision in a normal way.  Sacks explores many subprograms that make up our visual processing of reality.

If you read The Mind’s Eye you’ll see how everyone adapts their limited senses to reality.  No one is 100% functioning in all brain processing.  Reading this book makes me realize how I’ve adapted to living in a 2D reality.  My brain has adapted my vision so I can drive, walk down stairs, wash the dishes, play ball, catch a Frisbee, but from what I’ve read I’ve never known the beauty of stereoscopic vision as Dr. Sacks describes it.  When Sacks lost his 3D vision, he had trouble walking down stairs, taking ahold of objects, and did things like pour wine into people’s laps.

I hope I can remember this book, because when I experience brain damage or mental malfunction, I want to stay calm and not freak out.  When my brain starts breaking down and my consciousness observes the world going wacky, I want to go, “Hey, I know what this is, the area of my brain that processes written words must have conked out.”  Several people in this book described seeing words as if everything was written in a different language and alphabet.  Can you imagine how scary that would be?  Hopefully understanding the ideas in The Mind’s Eye might help deal with such experiences – if I can remember.

The thing I fear the most is not remembering who I am.  But you know what?  People adapt to that too.   

JWH – 8/8/12