Introduction: When the Canaries Stop Singing


Around Thanksgiving of 2012, we had to place my mother into intensive care in Anacortes, Washington. She was suffering from acute anxiety over not being able to breathe. She was later diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). In subsequent examinations regarding her increased anxiety and unusual behavior, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. Not long after this, around the beginning of 2013, my step-father began to exhibit symptoms of early dementia. In March of 2013, he was also diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

In January of 2013, my sister and I were making almost daily trips from our home in Bellingham to their house in Anacortes. The travel time, excepting traffic, was about 50 minutes each way. While I was driving, I had plenty of time to reflect upon the what was happening to my mother and step-father. Mostly, I thought about memory. Once I became aware they both were suffering from dementia, I began to see how much compensating they had been doing for the other. Many odd and unusual behaviors that I was formerly willing to attribute to unique personality and being "set in their ways," I now saw as covering and coping behaviors for gradual memory decay. They were, for the most part, unaware of it. They had isolated themselves away from any form of real society outside of each other, engaging in a sort folie a deux sustained by being comfortably retired in a luxury house and a good retirement income. From the outside looking in, they just seemed to be an old, slightly eccentric, married couple.

However, now, after the diagnosis and spending more time with them, I saw how much I had refused to notice because of a pre-conceived idea of who they were, as individuals, as a couple and as my parents. My sister and I quickly understood how much worse they were than we had realized - or wanted to realize. My mother was in worse shape than my step-father. But each of them needed daily care-givers and were no longer able to manage their lives on their own.

I want to emphasize this moment where you realize one or both of your parents can no longer take care of themselves, not due to any physical impairment but to a mental one. Specifically, when they can not remember to take care of themselves. The child becomes the adult to the parent. Psychologically, it is fascinating to note how natural it is to want the parent to be the one in charge, to ask for counsel and advice, to still teach and offer guidance. Even when the parent is obviously unable to understand even the most basic problems, a part of the child in you will keep interacting with the parent in this way.

It is all sad and it is all too common. Over 5 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer's. Over 26 million people worldwide, with estimate that 1 out of every 85 people in the world will suffer from Alzheimer's by 2050. While certainly not the most painful way to die, it is very sad and difficult for the families and caregivers. The body remains unharmed as the brain slowly degenerates. Everyday you see the person you love, your mother, your father, your wife or husband, lose their mind, forget who they are, forget who you are. And they, for the most part, are unaware of it.

When I was in elementary school, around 6th grade, we had to read Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It had been adapted in 1968 into a decent movie, lamentable titled, Charly. The film stared Cliff Robertson, who I always liked after because of it. I saw the movie on TV not long after I had read the book. It made quite an impression on me.

The story is told first-person through a series of journal entries by Charlie Gordon who has an IQ of 68. He is chosen to participate in an experiment to increase his intelligence. A mouse named Algernon also undergoes the procedure. The experiment is successful. Charlie's IQ increases rapidly up to 185. The form and content of the journal entries are consistent with Charlie's increased intelligence. Charlie studies the research and methods of the experiment that increased his and Algernon's intelligence and determines that the effect will decay and return him to his original state. Not long after, Algernon, the mouse, begins to behave erratically and dies. We follow Charlie's progress and eventual decline through his own words:

“October 7 - Strauss tried to see me again this morning, but I wouldn't open the door. I want to be left to myself now. It's a strange sensation to pick up a book you read and enjoyed just a few months ago and discover you don't remember it. I recall how wonderful I thought Milton was. When I picked up Paradise Lost I could only remember it was about Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, but now I couldn't make sense of it. ”  [...]
“October 19 - Motor activity impaired. I keep tripping and dropping things. At first I didn't think it was me. I thought she was changing things around. The wastebasket was in my way, and so were the chairs, and I thought she had moved them. Now I realize my coordination is bad. I have to move slowly to get things right. And it's increasingly difficult to type. Why do I keep blaming Alice? And why doesn't she argue? That irritates me even more because I see the pity in her face. My only pleasure now is the TV set. I spend most of the day watching the quiz programs, the old movies, the soap operas, and even the kiddie shows and cartoons. And then I can't bring myself to turn it off. Late at night there are the old movies, the horror pictures, the late show, and the late-late show, and even the little sermon before the channel signs off for the night, and the "StarSpangled Banner" with the flag waving in the background, and finally the channel test pattern that stares back at me through the little square window with its unclosing eye.... Why am I always looking at life through a window? And after it's all over I'm sick with myself because there is so little time left for me to read and write and think, and because I should know better than to drug my mind with this dishonest stuff that's aimed at the child in me. ” 

This could easily be a diary written by someone suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. What was most unsettling for me, even after first reading it when I was young, was to realize that at the end, Charlie has forgotten what happened to him. There is a vague sense of knowing something in the past but due to his diminished intelligence, his inability retain what he once knew in his memory, he is forever lost to himself.

I was bearing witness to this process on a daily basis. It was a sad thing to see. The only positive aspect about it was what I call the "Algernon Effect:" the person losing their mind and memory does not realize entirely what is happening to them.

Much of the time, especially as the disease progresses, they are just sort of zoned out in the present moment. It is tempting to believe there is a Buddhistic Zen-like quality to their state of mind, but the harsh truth is they are just being increasingly emptied of any presence at all, becoming like a seashell. You would like to believe you hear the ocean inside of them, but in reality it is just a vast nothingness.

 In addition to my mother and step-father being afflicted with a progressively degenerative form of dementia, within six months of my mother's diagnosis, all four of their miniature schnauzers died from neurological disorders. Granted, they were all old. But the slumbering presence and seemingly capriciously debilitating effects of diseases of the brain was suddenly much on my mind.

Thus my hour-long drives, sometimes twice a day, down to Anacortes to take care of my parents were filled with worrying ruminations over the nature of memory, what makes up the essence of our self, how can we remember some things and forget others and was it possible for a 50-year old man to train his memory in such a way that he would be able to detect the first signs of decay and deterioration.

I wanted to place memory structures within myself that would serve the same purpose as the canaries once did in the coal mines. When the canaries stopped singing and died, the miners knew there was poison gas in the air and they had to get out of the mine as quickly as possible. So with these memory structures, when they "stopped singing," when I was no longer able to remember them correctly, I would know it was time to "get out of my mind." I certainly did not want to end up in the same situation as my parents.

So I started memorizing, rather, I started remembering. Remembering songs. Over the years, I have written a lot of songs. I never made any conscious effort to memorize the song. I just kept practicing it until I knew it. A sort of naive form of memorization. Something about the combination of music and words made it easier to recall the song. This is a well known mnemonic technique. (cf: Music and word recall: The strength of familiar melodies as mnemonic devices and The Effect of Musical Mnemonics and Musical Training on Word Recall.) Like many, I learned my ABCs to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

As I drove back and forth from Bellingham to Anacortes each day, I would sing songs to myself. Most that I had written but also songs of others. After a while, I would simply attempt to recite them without music. It took a bit more effort. But once I could recite a song without singing it, it felt as though I could remember it more comprehensively, that I had mastered it, removed it from its easy mnemonic context and still been able to hold it together. I though a lot about this. What exactly was I doing when I was remembering? Where was it coming from?

Occasionally, there would be a song that I had forgotten some word or phrase of. I would poke around in my mind aggressively, shining the beam of my attention into the darkness, like searching with a flashlight for an old toy lost in a dark attic. It wouldn't come. So I would start singing another song and out of the blue the lost words would just be there. What part of my mind was responsible for that? And where were the lost words hidden. These questions obsessed me.

I began to look forward to the drives as an uninterrupted occasion for me to work on my memory. I had to drive down to Seattle one night to pick someone up at SeaTac, about two and half hours away, and I was happily surprised that I was able to sing and recite songs the entire way with no repeats. I began to wonder what the limits were to my memory. Clearly, I could remember much more than I thought I could. And I wondered why it had taken my 50 years to ever consider exercising my memory.

I honestly felt like I had discovered a new toy, rather a new playground, a huge and immense world to explore. It seems silly and glib to write. There is much more to be written later. But I realized it wasn't just me. As a culture we have increasingly externalized ourselves into the world. McLuhan's Extensions of Man. We have extended memory into the spoken word, then the written word, visual imagery of film and television and now computers and the Internet. Smart phone are ubiquitous "at our fingers" repositories for all of our memories. No one needs to remember anything anymore.

In 1956, George Miller wrote his influential paper The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information which is cited here in reference to the question on Quora: Why did Bell Labs create phone numbers of 7 digits - 10 digits? by Brian Roemmele:

Professor Miller research and other confirming studies along with the significant internal research performed at Bell Laboratories confirmed the limitations we all have on memory and how we use a process of “Chunking” data to <= 7 digits to deal with the limitations of the Human Brain. This lead directly to the number format of NNN-NNNN using a dash to break the numbers in to smaller Chunks. There are some technical reasons that the first chunk is 3 digits, however there was internal research at Bell Laboratories that found that in Chunking, it is best to start with no more then 3 digits and then if there needs to be a 4 digit chunk, it should be the last in the sequence. As the area code became more prominent with direct dialing the 3 digit pattern fit nearly perfectly. Additionally, later studies showed that people would memorize common area codes and pull that from a seemingly separate part of memory when matching it up was a 7 digit phone number.

I did a cursory search for research attempting to evaluate current capacities for memorization, but found nothing specific. My suspicion is that Miller's magic number seven might be too high for the atrophied memories of our times. It is worth bookmarking here Nicolas Carr's article for the Atlantic: Is Google Making Us Stupid? and the later book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Remembering my songs seemed easy. I had already memorized them at some point. So what I was doing was refreshing my recall. But these were not new memories. And I had created the songs - for the most part. There were more than a few occasions where I wondered if I had remembered the right word or phrase. And then I laughed because I could make it whatever phrase that seemed best to me. It was my song, after all.

In ABC: The Alphabetizaton of the Popular Mind by Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders, a profound and poetic exploration of the effect of literacy upon culture, they speak of the fluidity of oral traditions, rhapsodes reciting thousands of lines of an epic poem have no strict administrator checking them against a written canon. Memory flows through them, essentially unchanged, but with slight adornments and substitutions that mark the identity of the teller. Authority, authorship, was always in the telling.

Thanks to research done in the 1930s by this young Harvard classicist (Milman Perry) and his assistant Albert Lord, it is now clear that a purely oral tradition knows no division between recollecting and doing. The pre-alphabetic bard does not, like his medieval counterpart, draw on a storehouse of memories in order to compose a poem. Rather, he dips into a grab bag of phrases and adjectives and, driven by the rhythms of the lyre, spins the yarn of a tale.

As much as this fascinated me, I believed that it would expose me to The Algernon Effect, in that I might not realize when my re-membering of a song would begin to drift away from the original. It was only natural, at that point, to begin memorizing poems. I set the task before myself of memorizing ten poems or poetic passages. Each, I figured, would serve me well as a "canary in the mine" of my mind.

I had, of course, during the procedure of my education been called upon to memorize poems. And had even spent some time memorizing a handful classic poems - not that I knew any of them "by heart" anymore.

Beyond that, I wanted a challenge. I wanted something new, that I was unfamiliar with. A strange poem, perhaps in another language. I wanted to test my newfound skills of memorization. I wanted to see if I was even able to remember something that was "difficult."

One night, I was researching slight of hand tricks and found myself watching a video of Ricky Jay performing card tricks. In the middle of the performance, he stops to recite a poem by Francios Villon: Straight Tip to All Cross Coves. This was what I was looking for. Riddled with contingent, modal and tactical difficulties (cf. Steiner), I felt a sort of hunger to attempt to memorize it, to be able to always have it "at hand," to know it "by heart."

I wonder about writing all of this down. I imagine another version of Charlie Gordon's journal of decay. Of course I know that Alzheimer's isn't hereditary. At 51 years old, with my current weight and blood pressure, I am much more likely to suffer a stroke or a heart attack than to live long enough to exhibit signs of dementia. I also am under no illusions as to my intellect. I know that I am slightly above normal, but not exceptionally so.

However, for the last year or so, I have done more to improve and deepen my intellect than I have since I was first learning things anew as a child. That is how it feels. I also will add in the spirit of honest disclosure that I was exceptionally well educated. I had the privilege of attending private high-schools and spent many years at college - although I never graduated. I also have traveled extensively and can get around competently in Spanish and French. I write all this to show there really isn't anything exceptional or extraordinary about me in any way - intellectually, I should say. I was also never taught to use my memory - beyond simple mnemonics for planets or musical scales. Psychologically, I have my strengths and weaknesses, my obsessions and fears, that are perhaps somewhat unique. Spiritually, I am abnormal but not any augmented sense.

My point is this: my memory is the same as yours. I would even go so far as to say that after a lifetime of drinking and drugs, yours might be better.

So what? So over the last year, I have memorized over 70 poems - ranging from sonnets and odes to Shakespearian soliloquies, to Poe's The Raven. I have memorized poems in Spanish, French, Latin and German. In addition, I have memorized several dozen prose passages, speeches, sermons, from the Gettysburg Address to Sinners at the Hand of an Angry God. I have memorized lists of the Zodiac, the Tarot, the Hebrew alphabet, US Presidents, Shakespeare's Plays, Dante's Inferno and many others. I have memorized hundreds of songs, my own and others. I have, much to my amazement, memorized more things than I have ever thought I could ever memorize. And I know - and I write this with great confidence - that I have only scratched the surface.

Memory is not like the Sherlock Holmesian analogy of the attic, where a new piece of furniture pushed in the front pushes an old piece out the back. Rather is it holographic. The more you add to it, the greater the overall resolution of your self becomes. The more things I commit to memory, the easier it become to memorize. The capacity of memory seems near infinite. There are days where I walk along with Shakespeare and Poe and Lorca and Yeats, their words singing within me, combining with each other, echoing, resonating, revealing. And I wonder why it took me so long to enjoy the pleasure of memory. Throughout all that I am going through right now, it is the greatest gift I know and it is only within memory that I find any solace at all for the sorrow and suffering of this life.

[Bibliographic addenedum: I have been fascinated, slightly obsessed, with tales of increased intelligence all of my life. Amy Wallace's excellent book, The Prodigy: A Biography of William James Sidis, bears striking similarities to Flowers for Algernon. Much of my love of Colin Wilson is rooted in his belief in the "hidden powers of consciousness" perhaps best exemplified in his two Lovecraftian novels: The Mind Parasites and The Philosopher's Stone. Augmented powers thread through all of my favorite Science Fiction from Asimov's Foundation Series with Hari Seldon through Heinlein's Stranger in a Stranger Land with Valentine Michael Smith to William Gibson's Neuromancer. There is also a curious sub-genre of savants with books such as Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome to Ricky Jay's Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women.]