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Life Without a Memory – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

I have recently finished reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a book by eminent neurologist Oliver Sacks taking the form of ‘clinical anecdotes’ – or, informal case-histories – on some of the more interesting patients he has encountered throughout his long and distinguished career.

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realise that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing… (I can only wait for the final amnesia, the one that can erase and entire life.) – Luis Buñuel

The above quote is from The Lost Mariner, a chapter discussing one of Sacks’ patients, Jimmy G, who – due to Korsakoff’s syndrome – lost both his memories from the previous 35 years, and the ability to create new ones. It’s a touching and sad story where you feel that the only redeeming quality is the fact that this man cannot create new memories; at least then he doesn’t know that he has this problem.

Six months ago my family-life was ticking along as normal; everything was fine. Then, during a routine operation, my grandmother passed away, leaving my grandfather – a very self-sufficient man approaching 90 – alone in their home of 30 years. While interim accommodation arrangements were being made, my grandfather was found unconscious after suffering a stroke and was admitted to hospital – not even two weeks after his wife’s funeral.

Three months in hospital saw him recover well, and he was eventually placed in a geriatric recovery ward in preparation for release. Whenever I visited him he would get angry at the sports results and moan about the “boring sods” with whom he was sharing a ward with and who refused to go outside for a walk around the hospital’s rather beautiful grounds. This was perfectly normal behaviour.

However I was fearing the worst, and it appears that these fears were well-founded. A month ago he started to develop severe dementia, leading me to make the obvious comparisons between him and Sacks’ patient, Jimmie G, whom I was reading about at the time.

The retrograde loss of memory – and losing the ability to create new memories – is a horrible thing to witness; nothing can really prepare you for it. At the same time it’s difficult to become truly sad at this fact: how can we, when the ‘patient’ themselves is oblivious to the fact – and is seemingly content – due to the fact that the condition itself causes them to lack the ability to comprehend what’s going on?

But a man does not consist of memory alone. He has feeling, will, sensibilities, moral being – matter of which neuropsychology cannot speak. And it is here, beyond the realm of an impersonal psychology, that you may find ways to touch him, and change him… Neuropsychologicaly, there is little or nothing you can do; but in the realm of the Individual, there may be much you can do. – Alexander Luria in a letter to Sacks regarding Jimmie G.

These sort of medical conditions always raise interesting issues, but when combined with the general (and severe) decline of physical health in an older patient, some more interesting – and controversial – philosophical, moral, and political subjects are brought up. An important one of which is the topic of non-eugenics euthanasia.

Highly regulated, I believe that euthanasia would be a crucial addition to our public health system for a few exceptional and well-defined situations and circumstances. However, as this is unlikely to happen, I believe strongly that the topic of euthanasia is so important that it is at least worth serious consideration and debate – not just by medical professionals, but by both politicians and the public.

Of course, views on this vary wildly by culture, religion, and even within each individual (agreeing in some cases and not in others, even when the actual medical circumstances are the same), and for one moment please don’t think my family and I are planning any mercy killings – it just raised a debate between us and I wanted to spread the love and ignite your internal debating chamber.

In my family, many of us have made it clear that if we were in such an awful physical and psychological state that life were no longer enjoyable and was a chore, that we wouldn’t want to be kept alive. One member has even gone so far as to say (in all seriousness), that if this were the case they would be eternally grateful if we were to assist them in dying. Of course, current legislation makes entertaining this thought pointless.

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  1. By Reminiscence and La Jetée » Lone Gunman on September 5, 2008 at 11:56

    […] by a famous case study featured in Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (which I’ve written about previously) and premiers in London’s Jacksons Lane theatre early next week. After the matinée […]