An Attack of Memory?

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.
  • Transcript


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

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

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

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

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

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

So, actually one day, I was back at a lecture that I go to every month and I always sit in the same place, and this was after I had the shaking episode and it came like an illumination.  I thought maybe I have had a hysterical seizure.  No doctor, neurologist, psychiatrist went along with me on that one.  But in the book, I do talk about hysteria, both in the 19th century and as it's evolved since.  The symptoms are the same, they probably have been around forever and that is simply that a person has, for example, paralysis or a seizure, or blindness, dumbness, and it cannot be explained through say a brain tumor or a brain lesion.  Something clearly neurological and then, let's give the name hysteria.  

So hysteria is something that I've been interested for a very long time.  I thought I might have it, but it seems that it's unlikely.

Question: Do you believe you suffer, or suffered, from a form of epilepsy?

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

Question: Do you believe memory played a role in triggering the seizure?

Siri Hustvedt: This is a really very good question.  If memory played a role, it would have had to have been implicit memory.  Now the fascinating thing about this is all of us, certainly have lost the first three years of our lives, we do not have explicit memories from that time.  There are all kinds of reasons for that. One is that the hippocampus, which is crucial for laying down what scientists call episodic memories, is not developed.  So infantile amnesia, at least in part, has to do with that.  I think that there's also a connection to language, that with language the possibility of self-reflective consciousness and keeping memories through language becomes a possible form of storytelling.  I think there are probably scientists probably interested in that.  But that's really coming from other fields. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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