Monday, October 8, 2012

On Becoming Distracted in Old Age

Hal Pepinsky,,
October 8, 2012
                This year my secondary school class had a fiftieth-year reunion.  We continue sharing things.  One classmate just posted a link to a youtube video, , on memory loss in old age.  I replied:
                John, thanks for the link to the AARP cartoon on “where are my memories?”  By coincidence, a couple of weeks ago, I met a rising star neuro-scientist, Adam Gazzaley, when he came to receive an award my mom named in my dad’s honor for pioneering brain mapping experiments that help us understand dementia.  (My dad had died of a form of dementia called Lewey Bodies Syndrome.)  The focus of Adam’s research is on the effects of ageing on how distracted we become, as in the opening sequence of the cartoon where one of the pair can’t remember what s/he came into the room for.  Adam has found in the brain that the circuit attending to a task tends to be distracted fractions of a millisecond longer with age, with considerable variation within each age group.  He proposes that those who are distracted earlier and longer are more likely to develop dementia earlier and more severely.
                I asked him whether greater distraction might not be a sign of accommodation, adaptation, flexibility, creativity, empathy, hearing the music or the birds sing…you name it.  I recalled that when I rode five hundred hours with police in a “high crime area” of Minneapolis, I noticed that senior patrol officers who had not been promoted off the streets tended to be mellower and more adept at helping people calm down and work things out.  I mentioned that my definition of violence is goal fixation, attachment to objectives or outcomes, so that conflict becomes an obstacle rather than an opportunity to learn and change course.  Adam acknowledged that there might be a need for balance between focus and sensitivity (my words).
                As the cartoon satirizes attempts to keep mind and memory sharp by playing games like Sudoku, I’m thinking that that approach may reinforce memory loss.  When I stopped drinking, an older friend and mentor told me that while he was loath to give advice, he imagined that if he were in my shoes he would find it necessary to plan out his days in detail to keep himself distracted from the urge to drink.  It seems to me that both approaches to controlling one’s mind just add voltage to anxiety one is trying to suppress.  Or as Adam suggests, for example, one might focus on controlling one’s breathing or repeating a mantra.  And suppressing OCD by forcing oneself to control an obsession or compulsion by consciously, concertedly embarking on the next task only compounds the problem, it seems to me.  The irony is that the cure for distraction is self-imposed distraction.
                In a manner of speaking then, Adam sees distractors from outside the body as problematic, while all around me where staying busy is the norm, I see distractors from inside as problematic.  I am now finishing my fourth year of no longer needing to be paid for anything until I die.  On its face, such financial security is a luxury, and yet the overwhelming concern about retirement I feel in the company of others is having nothing to do, so much so that I often hear, “If I ever retired, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”  I’m not immune to the feeling.  I reassure myself by taking some of my free time to remember the times people, especially those close to me, have made it as obvious as they could that they don’t require me to do or achieve anything more to keep on being loved and valued by them.  I am also reassured when I remind myself that my greatest “accomplishments” are things that have happened to me when I have let go of planning them.  At these moments I feel I have a choice between getting things done, and waiting until someone calls something to my attention.  What do I do while I wait?  Nothing that needs to be worth talking about.  The more I tell myself that doing “nothing” for the moment is okay, the more readily I seem to take care of things I would otherwise need to plan to do later—the less I find myself having left to do.  That’s quite a contrast to when I started my publish-or-perish career for instance when I would finish writing one paper ahead of deadline or planning the next class or lecture to getting things done months in advance, and still worrying about what I needed to get done next.  This also gives me more room to be distracted by my own feelings, both by noticing and enjoying moments of feeling good, and letting moments of feeling bad come and go rather than feeling obliged to get over them or deny them.  Paradoxically, I come out feeling I’ve done and accomplished more in moments I let go of feeling I have to do anything.  The more I let go of getting anywhere, the more I seem to get somewhere.
I resist believing that memory lapse represents impoverishment of the mind.  Time and again, I find my mind enriched when lapses occur.  I think that can even be the case for my mother who can scarcely remember what she or I last said or did.  I have spent a lot of time in nursing homes and adult day care centers the last twenty years.  There I have found many people who if they are socially responsive at all, are angry or melancholy.  My mom laughs readily.  A day or two ago she reported to me that she was getting picked up to go to California to deal with subjects (former experimental social psychologist that she has been).  That’s a lot richer life of the mind than sitting in her wheelchair staring at the wall, or than residents who know exactly where they are and are fixated on going home.  Some of us show remarkably little mental or physical change until we drop dead, even into our nineties.  Others of us slow down considerably before we die.  In some ways, we might be becoming more attuned to the world around us in the process.  There may be something to be said for ageing.  Love and peace--hal

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