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Who's in the Video
Siri Hustvedt is the author of four novels, a book of poetry, and a number of short stories and essays. She is the author of "The Blindfold" (1992), "The Enchantment[…]

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

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Siri Hustvedt: Well, I can't, you know, you can't tell arnstory forward, only backward.  So,rnthe event that is central to the book that I've written is a seizure episodernthat happened very abruptly and suddenly. rnI was giving a little speech at a memorial occasion for my father; theyrnwere planting a tree in his honor. rnHe was a Professor at St. Olaf College and he had died two years beforernthen.  I stood up, felt no anxiety,rnvery calm.  I had my index cards inrnfront of me for the speech.  Irnopened my mouth, began to speak and from the neck down, my limbs, my torso,rneverything, I started to shudder, but not a small tremor; really hugernconvulsive motions in my arms and legs. rnAnd I was so shocked.  Itrnwas an amazing thing to have happened. rnI continued giving the speech. rnI really didn't know what else to do.  I didn't fall over. rnI 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,rnalmost blue, and I wondered what had happened.  It was extraordinary.

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

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Siri Hustvedt: Well you know, long before I had thisrnseizure, I had been immersed in material about the brain and the mind,rnneuroscience, psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and so I decided to—first of all, Irnasked quite a few friends of mine who were doctors and neuroscientists, whatrnthis could be?  And nobody had arnready answer.  I did then diagnosernmyself with conversion disorder, or hysteria.  I thought, well maybe because I was talking about my deadrnfather, someone who I was very close to, there was an emotional trigger and itrnwas acted out in this way. 

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And the inspiration was, I was at a neuroscience lecture andrnbehind me was a woman and we started talking after the lecture was over and Irnasked her what she did, and she said, I treat mostly conversion patients.  Those patients usually start withrnneurologists, 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 tornevery month and I always sit in the same place, and this was after I had thernshaking episode and it came like an illumination.  I thought maybe I have had a hysterical seizure.  No doctor, neurologist, psychiatristrnwent along with me on that one. rnBut in the book, I do talk about hysteria, both in the 19th century andrnas it's evolved since.  Thernsymptoms are the same, they probably have been around forever and that isrnsimply that a person has, for example, paralysis or a seizure, or blindness,rndumbness, and it cannot be explained through say a brain tumor or a brainrnlesion.  Something clearlyrnneurological and then, let's give the name hysteria.  

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So hysteria is something that I've been interested for arnvery long time.  I thought I mightrnhave it, but it seems that it's unlikely.

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

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

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

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Siri Hustvedt: This is a really very good question.  If memory played a role, it would havernhad to have been implicit memory. rnNow the fascinating thing about this is all of us, certainly have lostrnthe first three years of our lives, we do not have explicit memories from thatrntime.  There are all kinds ofrnreasons for that. One is that the hippocampus, which is crucial for laying downrnwhat scientists call episodic memories, is not developed.  So infantile amnesia, at least in part,rnhas to do with that.  I think thatrnthere's also a connection to language, that with language the possibility ofrnself-reflective consciousness and keeping memories through language becomes arnpossible form of storytelling.  Irnthink there are probably scientists probably interested in that.  But that's really coming from otherrnfields. 

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

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

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

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Siri Hustvedt: rnOh, absolutely.  You know,rnit's very fascinating what's happened to -- what's happened in sort of thernintellectual history of these ideas. rnFreud, it's very important to say, did not invent the idea of thernunconscious.  This goes wayrnback.  There's some people who sayrnthat in Leibniz you can find a version of this.  When Leibniz was answering Descartes and Hume, especiallyrnabout the nature of consciousness, and he says, "Well, there are thingsrnthat 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 thenrnlater became a physician, the unconscious was something that wasrnacknowledged.  Something likernWilhelm Vunt, who was a researcher and is credited with having the firstrnpsychology lab in Germany, was convinced that many things took place that werernoutside of human awareness, and he was not thinking only of our hearts arernpumping.  He meant memories, evenrnthoughts that simply aren't—we don't have them available to us.  And there was also an Englishrnnaturalist, Carpenter, in the 19th century, in the 1870’s; he had an idearncalled the "adaptive unconscious."  So, this all predates Freud. 

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In the early 20th century with the rise of behaviorism in thernUnited States.  Now psychoanalysisrnwas going its merry way alone and developing and thinking its thoughts, butrnnevertheless, in the scientific community, behaviorism really got a kind ofrnstranglehold on cognitive science and behaviorism maintained that they did notrnwant to talk about consciousness or unconsciousness.  All that mattered was a third person point of view, lookingrnat human behavior and we would get all the answers.  In fact, as I point out in the book, there was a man, a bigrnguy in behaviorism, rather controversial, Watson, who maintained that humanrnbeings 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 imageryrnand there's a very tiny minority in the population, some of whom are normal,rnsome of whom have brain lesions, who cannot produce visual imagery. 

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

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