Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Memory and Emotion

Orchid is a new reader to this blog and she posted a comment on the last posting, it was so interesting I thought I'd move part of her comment up here into the main section so it doesn't get missed!

Here is what she wrote:

First, Okaasan can't remember so many things, yet she remembers if the piles of laundry and garbage in her room are moved/altered. How is it that something so unremarkable can be remembered and she becomes angry? Surely the composition and height of the piles is something even people who don't suffer from dementia would not remember well. Also, she has been angry with you for long spans of time for cleaning her room, but how is it that she remembers what she is angry about for such a long period of time? Why does she remember her paranoid beliefs that you stole a magazine when she can't keep many other memories at hand for a minute?

Is dementia highly selective in this way? Is she storing new memories with an emotional component (those that make her angry or anxious) differently than those which have a neutral component? If so, can that be used to make sure she remembers things of importance which are positive?

I've studied neurobiology a tiny bit, and I know that memories are stored such that both the details and the emotions are locked in together. It is impossible for one to be elicited without the other, and ironically, when a memory is jogged by external stimuli, sometimes the details of the memory are not brought forth but the feeling is. This is why people have anxiety and don't know why in certain situations. The emotion stored with the memory of a similar experience comes out, but the memory itself doesn't make it. I don't know if this relates to dementia, but if your reading has revealed any answers about this selective memory situation, I'd be very curious to know.

My thoughts....

1. I think she remembers what is important to her - and the "you stole my magazine" 2 years ago was a good example of that. Magazines are important to her. She makes special trips to the shops to buy the latest, she sits and looks at them in detail and copies down recipes from them. That time I probably removed a recently bought magazine...now I am much more careful and I take out magazines from the BOTTOM of the piles....!

I don't think she notices the changes in piles of clothes/newspapers/trash around her room - but if she can't find a particular item of clothing WHEN she is looking for it - then maybe the knowledge that we go into her room when she isn't there comes crashing to the fore.

She appears to remember the real angry times for about 5 days - or at least the emotion continues for about 5 days...and then it is gone again.

I reckon she DOES know we go in and remove clothes for washing and take out trash - but she accepts it basically.

2. Positive or Negative emotions, are they stored differently? I don't know! But I think the positive are easier to retrieve if SHE is basically happy in her days.
So every single time we eat okonomiyaki (savory pancake) it brings to life her happy memories of eating it after school as a child. I guess we ALL bury negative memories...

3. I think dementia sufferers do have selective memory - and for carers it can be disconcerting - you are never quite sure if she has remembered or not.
I've even seen her lose the memory of one of her own favorite stories...she is telling it as usual, and then the next piece of information isn't there. The following day - same story and the missing bit reappears! Once or twice I've supplied the forgotten details - but that confuses her because of course there is no reason why I should know HER story (except I've heard it a million times already).

It's all very strange....and interesting...funny...and frustrating....


  1. Your last line sums it up.
    My grandmother - not by blood but in every other way - NTG - concocted the most amazing stories, based upon distant memory - not much from recent times, really, and then jazzed up. It was funny because I've always been the adventurer in our family but she never acknowledged it, almost resented it, it seemed, (my grandfather loved that side to me and encouraged it), but when she started to get Alz., her stories would contain snippets of things that I had done, but which in her wildest dreams, she had now done, and in many ways this warmed my heart because whilst she may not have wanted to accept that she loved me more than she ever let on, or that she respected me more than she ever let on, in the end these little stories showed that underneath the sucking lemons facade, she actually quite liked me. I remember saying to my grandfather, 'it's funny how NTG thinks so negatively of me now that she has Alz.' and Gramps said, 'Actually, she's never really liked you', which was a bit hard to hear, actually, but I guess Gramps thought I could take it, and I did, but I didn't go to her funeral, and I would have done had I not heard that about me. I guess I was quite sad, and that's why I wound up sticking my tongue out at her that one time, which I feel so bad about now.

  2. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I have many more and could have peppered you with enough to keep you writing for hours, but want to spread them out rather than badger you right away. ;-) There were many times when I was reading your archives that I wanted to comment on an old post, but felt it best not to go back so deeply in history to say something.

    Everything you say makes perfect sense with the experiences I've read in your blog and I want to thank you for continuing to maintain it when you considered ending it some time ago. I think reading about the progression of your experiences presents information in a very humanized manner which is easy for novices to relate to and certainly must be helpful to other folks dealing with family members with dementia. For me, it's been interesting, but also refreshing to see your resilience in the face of so many challenges. It helps that you're a very good writer!

    On a more personal note, I found your experiences with your tumor to also be oddly reassuring. We are nearly the same age (I'm 47) and recently it was discovered that I have a tumor on my thyroid. I won't know the results of tests to see if it was cancerous or not or receive information on what the outcome might be until Thursday (having to wait 2 weeks for test results has been excruciating). Reading about how you, someone around my age, had a tumor and it was successfully removed normalizes the whole experience to some extent for me. It makes me feel like these sorts of things start to happen as we get near 50 and they can be dealt with successfully and we can go on living normal, healthy lives. I'm glad that was your outcome, and expect that will be mine as well.

  3. Fingers crossed it will!!!!! And if it isn't - then let modern medicine and vast amounts of woman power get your through it :-)

    glad to welcome you here...i'm off to bed now...with my cats and man...

  4. It's benign, but I have to have it out anyway (but that's not the worst outcome).

    Thanks for the welcome!

  5. Good to hear? So you're scheduled in for an op?