In my last article I talked about how my father’s Alzheimer’s disease and how I could interpret his emotional response to my mother’s toast on their 50th anniversary. Now I want to share a little about what I’ve learned from psychology, in particular Dan Schacter’s “Searching for Memory“.
Explicit memory and Implicit memory
In Alzheimer’s, like in most amnesic disorders, it is explicit memory that suffers. Not only can my dad not remember what he had for breakfast today, but he can’t remember any birthdays, towns he visited on vacation, or that he once had this and that hobby.
His implicit memory however, functions well. He knows day from night, how to drive, and other non-conscious matters.
So when he teared up upon seeing my mom cry, did he know what was happening? Arguably yes, at least to some degree. His senses (except for olfactory – gone looong ago) function fine so, he heard the tremble in her voice, saw the contortions in her face – the involuntary, unconscious indicators of crying, and he reacted somewhat appropriately, with sympathetic tears.
Was that reaction a conscious one? I think that when I cry, or any of us, it is usually due to an abundance of emotion. From infancy, crying is a primary way of communicating a wide variety of need and emotion. Part of why we may first feel compassion for a crying baby, but once it’s perceived needs are addressed, if it continues crying it becomes increasingly irritating. Baby isn’t using its crying thoughtfully or sincerely.
An important clue here is in the occasion itself – fifty years of marriage. Fifty two as a couple. That’s a long time. While it didn’t start during formative years it did span numerous opportunities to learn, explicitly, what it means when mom cries.
Post onset of Alzheimer’s those explicit memories were gone to some degree. But presumably there have still been several opportunities to see mom cry (joyful tears mostly – mom is an upbeat, cheery person – she’d want me to tell you that), each of which was a Priming opportunity.
Priming is a way of teaching new habits to people with memory disfunction. It relies on some functioning short term memory and works much like conditioned response.
CRY requires COMPASSION (and my mother, having gone through Alzheimer’s with her own mother has no hesitation telling my father how she expects him to respond if he seems stuck).
If you Prime the association between cry and compassion frequently, it can become imprinted in the memory, in something more like Procedural memory – the kind we use to learn and recall how to throw or catch or ride a bicycle.
There are still deeper questions at hand and I don’t (yet) know how to answer them, or even identify them all. What I do know is that Alzheimer’s, while a cruel disease, does not equal complete death of the unique personal traits we attribute to the spirit. There is functional interaction potential and a limited realm of new learning (limited largely by time, know-how, and good old determination) that can be enjoyed.
Pardon me. I have more reading to do.