Despite the shoddy disco ball, the mysterious ‘plum wine’ and the melodramatic video clips, I am of the mind that karaoke is good for the soul. My friends and I arrive at Echo Point close to midnight, stumble down the steep staircase, overhear the howling from the other rooms and defiantly think, that won’t be us.
Usually, choosing a playlist is easy, and we sing along without much reference to the (often dodgy) lyrics on the screen. But this time it’s different: we struggle to select songs to sing, and there are mumbled pauses in place of previously well-known refrains. Despite a fair amount of plum wine, I have a series of very sobering thoughts: Am I losing touch with music? Am I turning into my parents, who think everything post-1979 is derivative or ‘too noisy’? Am I losing my memory?
When was the last time I listened to an album all the way through? Instead of tilting my head and pondering, I check my iPhone—because it knows these things about me. The last album I bought was Lorde’s Pure Heroine in 2013. Since then, I’ve subscribed to Spotify and my musical history has become a mishmash of Shazams (an app that identifies songs playing in the background) picked up at cafés, watching Netflix, or during random attacks of nostalgia. I’m listening to more music than ever before, but the details I once memorised—lyrics, albums, release dates and even artist names—I now neglect. No wonder I’m choking at karaoke—I’ve outsourced my musical memory. Spotify has become my musical memory prosthetic.
And what about the ‘Memories’ folder that my iPhone automatically creates with my photos, timestamps and geodata? ‘Best of the last 4 weeks’ might as well be ‘I know what you did last summer’. And what of my co-dependent relationship with my Google search bar, and the ‘page visit’ stamp that tells me: You’ve googled this before? Do I really need to remember anything at all?
• • •
The brain structure most critical for memory formation is the hippocampus, named after its resemblance to a seahorse from the Greek: ‘hippo’ = horse, ‘kampos’ = sea monster. This sea monster asserts some independence from the brain proper—it communicates with the wrinkly, fatty bits, but sits separate, nestled between the left and right lobes of the brain.
On the surface, human brains look disappointingly similar to each other. Nineteenth-century scientists compared formaldehyde-soaked specimens, expecting to discover reliable physical indicators of an individual’s identity. They studied black versus white brains, ‘murderer’ brains and even ‘suffragette’ brains, with an unending obsession with ‘genius’ brains (Einstein’s, mainly) to little avail.
More recent evidence suggests that your brain starts to look different if you’re highly skilled: a musician, an elite diver, a London cab driver—or if there is trauma or disease. If I get Alzheimer’s like my grandmother, my brain will be different too. A shrivelled sea monster.
Pre-Alzheimer’s, my interactions with my grandmother were predictable: First question: Have you eaten? (She is Filipino.) Second: Are you still studying? (What is your career?) Third: Where are you living now? (Have you bought a house?) Fourth: Do you have a boyfriend? (When will you marry?) As the Alzheimer’s progressed, my grandmother became stuck in this loop, and we repeat this conversation several times each visit. I wince as she jabs at the trifecta of things my generation quibbles about with the baby boomers (my parents): career, mortgage, marital status. Nope? Ouch. And, again.
At my nephew’s first birthday, my grandmother and I sit together eating cake—one of the few things she will eat without a fight. Quietly, she asks me, ‘Whose house is this?’ and then later, nodding towards the birthday boy, ‘Who is that?’ I tell her it’s my cousin’s son and she nods, but I can see her puzzling and dismissing the information. She still thinks of my cousins and me as children, so this other child does not make sense. Later on, she asks again.
I’m not sure how she smooths this incongruous information into something palatable and non-alarming. When she catches her reflection in the mirror, she’s startled by her mess of thick white hair. I see her suppress her surprise. She’s the matriarch of the family—I suspect she doesn’t want to show weakness. She looks away and puzzles over it some more. I can’t imagine what it’s like to get this repeated shock of unfamiliarity throughout the day, to have this impossible puzzle piece hovering over you until after a while it fades too.
For a time, I become obsessed with taking a preventive stance against Alzheimer’s. I fall down Google rabbit holes, consoled by the internet’s willingness to give me a solution: eat fish (deep sea only), do sudoku (to get better at sudoku), exercise (this has some legs), more REM sleep (sure, but how?), stress less (if only), learn a new skill (does fish-eating count?), and my favourite, travel—because new experiences give your brain a jolt.
I save all these informative links in a bookmarks folder called ‘Dementia Prevention’ and, as with most of my bookmarks, I never go back to re-read them. It’s the hoarding of information, apparently, that helps me deal with the issue. Perhaps that’s how I need to adapt: keep an easily accessible, external repository of memories, so I don’t have to worry about my diminishing capacity to store them. My Google memory prosthetic to the rescue again. If I can retain this one set of skills and motor commands—the ones I use to pick up my phone, open my browser and type in my question—maybe I’ll get by just fine?
• • •
The history of our attempts to demystify the brain is as maze-like as its surface. Pre-1500s, we thought the wrinkled cortex was merely a protective cushion, and that the ventricles contained ‘animal spirits’ responsible for cognitive function. Between the 1500s and 1800s things became grim: grave robbing, public cadaver dissections fresh from the gallows, head-span measuring devices and the skull-contouring voodoo of phrenology.
In 1887, Santiago Ramón y Cajal discovered the delicate, individual brain cells embedded in the wrinkled mess. Obsessively he drew the neurons as seen through his microscope in nearly three thousand ink sketches. His sea monster curled in on itself but was dense with the sparks of activity—an agitated slumber.
After the Second World War there was an influx of brains with precise lesions from bullets and shrapnel damage. We began to designate regions of the brain based on function: vision, motor control, language, memory. Post-1950s we were able to eavesdrop on the brain as it talked to itself and to the body. We used X-rays, radioactive tracers and giant magnets to watch the rush of blood in the head. Hundreds of research studies hinged on fMRI data-matching behaviours to the bits of brain that ‘light up’.
But ultimately the brain is an electric beast. It communicates, neuron to neuron, with electricity. Measuring electrical activity in the brain non-invasively can only go so far—a sticky bonnet of scalp electrodes unable to reach the depths where the sea monster hides.
It’s not lost on me—the irony that brains are what’s needed to unlock the mystery of the brain. There’s probably a lot we don’t know about the heart, but we can’t blame its secrecy on the organ itself. In Alzheimer’s, the sea monster is the first to go.
Perhaps I should be expecting a drug cure, but we live in an age where solutions to problems can be coded, where our typically silent brains can talk to electronic devices. Maybe we’re a way off Neo’s ‘I know Kung Fu’ moment in The Matrix, or maybe not. The brain is electric, after all.
This last year the first series of research studies emerged that claimed to have improved memory performance via brain implants in humans. These studies were conducted on patients with ‘neural stimulators’ implanted in their brains, designed to deliver small pulses of electricity to disrupt epileptic seizures. Associate Professor Dong Song and his team recorded each patient’s hippocampal neural activity pattern at optimal memory performance. The implants were coded to mimic each hippocampus’s unique neural signature, giving their memories a custom-made ‘boost’. Building on this, Professor Michael Kahana and his team identified brain regions around the hippocampus network associated with poor recall, and used jolts of electricity to disrupt the ‘poorer performing’ parts of the network.
If we can use electricity selectively to stimulate our brain’s memory networks like this—by boosting the optimal performers and disrupting the weakest links—perhaps it will only be a matter of time before the mystery of memory unravels, and the sea monster is tamed.
• • •
When I visit my grandmother, she is calm, but my aunty, her primary carer, tells us that she gets aggressive and tries to escape. She’s not your typical nanna, rather a tiger mum—she survived Japanese raids on the Philippines in the Second World War and still has shrapnel lodged somewhere in her shin.
Having a tiger grandmother with dementia has altered what were already fairly complicated family dynamics. Pre-Alzheimer’s, she didn’t really get along with my aunty or my mother. These days she is much harsher with my aunty, unable to control her sharp tongue. Conversely, her interactions with my mother have mellowed. Whatever the grudge was (stealing away her favourite son), it is now forgotten. Only in the brain, this muddled chunk of flesh, would we entertain such haphazardness. Her memories, although altered and unreal, begin to shape ours. My aunty grows more sullen, my mother more sympathetic. If my grandmother were to receive a memory implant, she could not control which memories to dial up or dial down.
In the undamaged brain, memories are fallible in different ways. They are coloured by our experiences, hopes, fears, biases and disruptions we fail to register. We fill in gaps to help us make sense of the world, just as my grandmother does, except her gaps grow larger. To some extent we choose what we remember, too. We rehearse, embellish, reminisce, commemorate. For the most part, what I like is what I repeat.
To help with her memory, my father buys my grandmother a digital photo frame. He scans and curates photographs from her collection that double as a brief history of photography: irregularly shaped cards tinged with taupe (#nofilter), warping polaroids, the high-contrast Kodak years, then the pixels. Dad programs the frame to run a continuous slideshow next to my grandmother’s bed. She delights at this, but she is also a hoarder who likes to put away, rather than use, anything brand new. The next time we visit, the frame is packed in its box and placed in her drawer, also forgotten.
This year my grandmother celebrated her 95th birthday; the last decade having been in the fog of Alzheimer’s. She looks at the huge, foil, numbered balloons bouncing above her wheelchair—9 and 5—quite possibly thinking they are positioned the wrong way around. These days she is a time traveller: I get to hear her thoughts as if she were 20, 40, 60, but never, ever believing she is 95. She tells me secrets: how she got married too young, how she lost her love of cooking, how lonely it gets when my grandfather ‘goes away’. It’s the closest we’ve ever been.
The family celebrates with her on a long table: four children, five grandchildren and the ten nonsensical great-grandchildren. During the celebrations I see her sitting next to my cousin, giggling as she looks at something on his phone. I think about the technological leaps she’s seen in her time, and wonder what she makes of the ‘smartphone’ she holds in her hand, a slightly different model of my memory prosthetic.
Turns out she’s looking at herself in the selfie cam of the Snapchat app. My cousin has set it so that there are live animations superimposing on her face, so she looks like she has grown large ears and a big black nose. She touches her nose incredulously, expecting to feel the wetness of an animal nose, and places a hand on her head, trying to feel where the cartoon ears appear to sprout. I see that puzzled look on her face again, but she laughs. She moves her head from side to side, and the features follow her.
She looks away for a moment, a microslip, where did she go? She looks back at the phone as if it’s brand new. She touches her nose, feeling her familiar skin, but seeing the big black nose in its place. She laughs again. •
Claire Benito is a Sydney-based writer and researcher with a PhD in psychology. She writes essays and reviews, and is working on her first novel.
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