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Chris Hadfield
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An Attack of Memory?

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Question: What is your memory of the seizure that you\r\ndescribe in “The Shaking Woman?"

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Siri Hustvedt: Well, I can't, you know, you can't tell a\r\nstory forward, only backward.  So,\r\nthe event that is central to the book that I've written is a seizure episode\r\nthat happened very abruptly and suddenly. \r\nI was giving a little speech at a memorial occasion for my father; they\r\nwere planting a tree in his honor. \r\nHe was a Professor at St. Olaf College and he had died two years before\r\nthen.  I stood up, felt no anxiety,\r\nvery calm.  I had my index cards in\r\nfront of me for the speech.  I\r\nopened my mouth, began to speak and from the neck down, my limbs, my torso,\r\neverything, I started to shudder, but not a small tremor; really huge\r\nconvulsive motions in my arms and legs. \r\nAnd I was so shocked.  It\r\nwas an amazing thing to have happened. \r\nI continued giving the speech. \r\nI really didn't know what else to do.  I didn't fall over. \r\nI thought I might. 

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And when I finished the speech, the shuddering left me.  I had—my legs had turned very red,\r\nalmost blue, and I wondered what had happened.  It was extraordinary.

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Question: How did you explain this attack at the time, and\r\nhow do you explain it now?

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Siri Hustvedt: Well you know, long before I had this\r\nseizure, I had been immersed in material about the brain and the mind,\r\nneuroscience, psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and so I decided to—first of all, I\r\nasked quite a few friends of mine who were doctors and neuroscientists, what\r\nthis could be?  And nobody had a\r\nready answer.  I did then diagnose\r\nmyself with conversion disorder, or hysteria.  I thought, well maybe because I was talking about my dead\r\nfather, someone who I was very close to, there was an emotional trigger and it\r\nwas acted out in this way. 

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And the inspiration was, I was at a neuroscience lecture and\r\nbehind me was a woman and we started talking after the lecture was over and I\r\nasked her what she did, and she said, I treat mostly conversion patients.  Those patients usually start with\r\nneurologists, and then the neurologists send them to me. 

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So, actually one day, I was back at a lecture that I go to\r\nevery month and I always sit in the same place, and this was after I had the\r\nshaking episode and it came like an illumination.  I thought maybe I have had a hysterical seizure.  No doctor, neurologist, psychiatrist\r\nwent along with me on that one. \r\nBut in the book, I do talk about hysteria, both in the 19th century and\r\nas it's evolved since.  The\r\nsymptoms are the same, they probably have been around forever and that is\r\nsimply that a person has, for example, paralysis or a seizure, or blindness,\r\ndumbness, and it cannot be explained through say a brain tumor or a brain\r\nlesion.  Something clearly\r\nneurological and then, let's give the name hysteria.  

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So hysteria is something that I've been interested for a\r\nvery long time.  I thought I might\r\nhave it, but it seems that it's unlikely.

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Question: Do you believe you suffer, or suffered, from a\r\nform of epilepsy?

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Siri Hustvedt: Well, you know, epilepsy is a big thing.  I mean, I have not been diagnosed with\r\nepilepsy, I did have an MRI of the brain, and they found no abnormalities in my\r\nbrain.  Now, there are people with\r\nepilepsy who have completely normal MRI's too.  I just think also, you know, epileptic seizures can be\r\ntriggered by emotional stress, by all kinds of things, lights.  I do have migraine, that's for\r\nsure.  And people who have migraine\r\nare more likely to also have epilepsy than people who don't have migraine.  It's not clear.  I may eventually find out exactly\r\nwhat's going on here, and I may not.

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Question: Do you believe memory played a role in triggering\r\nthe seizure?

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Siri Hustvedt: This is a really very good question.  If memory played a role, it would have\r\nhad to have been implicit memory. \r\nNow the fascinating thing about this is all of us, certainly have lost\r\nthe first three years of our lives, we do not have explicit memories from that\r\ntime.  There are all kinds of\r\nreasons for that. One is that the hippocampus, which is crucial for laying down\r\nwhat scientists call episodic memories, is not developed.  So infantile amnesia, at least in part,\r\nhas to do with that.  I think that\r\nthere's also a connection to language, that with language the possibility of\r\nself-reflective consciousness and keeping memories through language becomes a\r\npossible form of storytelling.  I\r\nthink there are probably scientists probably interested in that.  But that's really coming from other\r\nfields. 

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Now, the infantile—the possibility of—so there is,\r\nbecause what you can have without having any explicit memory, or memory that is\r\nleft that you could put into words, is that people can store emotional memories\r\nfrom early in their life that can be triggered.  So, a simple example would be, if a child is bitten by a\r\ndog, there's a bad bite when you’re one and a half years old.  That child could, as he grows up,\r\ncontinue to have a terrible fear of dogs. \r\nThey do know that early traumas in infants have a lot to do with how the\r\nwhole emotional system in the brain develops.  So that temperament, that person can be much more what we\r\ncall highly strung than other people. 

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It is possible in my case that something was triggered by\r\nthat speech, or you know, I'm not sure. \r\nSome fear.  I just—because I\r\ncan't get a hold of it, I can't find it. \r\nBut I would not rule that out.

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Question: Is the “explicit vs. implicit” memory distinction\r\nthe same as Freud’s “conscious vs. unconscious”?

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Siri Hustvedt: \r\nOh, absolutely.  You know,\r\nit's very fascinating what's happened to -- what's happened in sort of the\r\nintellectual history of these ideas. \r\nFreud, it's very important to say, did not invent the idea of the\r\nunconscious.  This goes way\r\nback.  There's some people who say\r\nthat in Leibniz you can find a version of this.  When Leibniz was answering Descartes and Hume, especially\r\nabout the nature of consciousness, and he says, "Well, there are things\r\nthat just are outside of our consciousness."  And so Leibniz might be certainly interesting.

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But in the 19th century, when Freud was a student and then\r\nlater became a physician, the unconscious was something that was\r\nacknowledged.  Something like\r\nWilhelm Vunt, who was a researcher and is credited with having the first\r\npsychology lab in Germany, was convinced that many things took place that were\r\noutside of human awareness, and he was not thinking only of our hearts are\r\npumping.  He meant memories, even\r\nthoughts that simply aren't—we don't have them available to us.  And there was also an English\r\nnaturalist, Carpenter, in the 19th century, in the 1870’s; he had an idea\r\ncalled the "adaptive unconscious."  So, this all predates Freud. 

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In the early 20th century with the rise of behaviorism in the\r\nUnited States.  Now psychoanalysis\r\nwas going its merry way alone and developing and thinking its thoughts, but\r\nnevertheless, in the scientific community, behaviorism really got a kind of\r\nstranglehold on cognitive science and behaviorism maintained that they did not\r\nwant to talk about consciousness or unconsciousness.  All that mattered was a third person point of view, looking\r\nat human behavior and we would get all the answers.  In fact, as I point out in the book, there was a man, a big\r\nguy in behaviorism, rather controversial, Watson, who maintained that human\r\nbeings have no visual imagery in their minds.  This seems insane to me. 

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Now it's thought that about 96% of us have visual imagery\r\nand there's a very tiny minority in the population, some of whom are normal,\r\nsome of whom have brain lesions, who cannot produce visual imagery. 

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But this internal reality of the human being was so\r\nthreatening to behaviorism that they really went very far to squash it.  Even a hint of something called\r\nintrospection.  You know, looking\r\nin at what's going on inside us, was anathema.  So, that had a long stranglehold, I think, on a lot of\r\nscientific research that's beginning to open up now.  They didn't like to talk about emotions either.  But now in neuroscience and in\r\ncognitive science, there's a lot of research being done on emotion.

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The bizarre seizure that struck the author at her father’s memorial service launched her on an exploration of neurology, psychology, and the ancient study of buried memory.

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