Posted by: oneyearbook | June 4, 2009

Science and my novel

Near the beginning of my book, the main character, Ada, speculates that she has a mental problem, one undiscovered by science: “Rather than managing the alchemical trick of turning a leaden Charles into a golden Charlie, she had simply created him whole, molding him out of clay and animating him with a whisper. A sort of reverse Alzheimer’s, it was. Rather than losing memory with age, hers was slowly ballooning, expanding, creating whole hemispheres out of nothingness.”

Well science is keeping up, as a post at Neurophilosophy (link via the Morning News) explains: it is called confabulatory hypermnesia, and researchers have written an article about it in the journal Cortex, noting that they believe it is the first study to document such a thing.

“Researchers describe the case of a patient with severe memory loss who has a tendency to invent detailed and perfectly plausible false memories (confabulations) in response to questions to which most people would answer ‘I don’t know’.” The patient in question was referred to a memory clinic after problems with memory loss and disorientation.

He was referred to the memory clinic at the Charles Foix Hospital in Ivry-sur-Seine for a neuropsychological evaluation after he began to experience memory loss and disorientation in time and space. Researchers then found that he confabulated answers to a wide variety of questions, including those about himself but also about public events that he would not be expected to know the answer to (ie questions about who won a certain film award thirty years ago). Korsakoff’s syndrome, the article notes, can also lead to patients with false memories; “however, the confabulations of such patients are sometimes extraordinary, bizarre, and verging on being delusional. [The patient’s] confabulations, on the other hand, were always plausible, and therefore quite unlike those reported in other Korsakoff’s patients.”

alse memories are not uncommon in patients with Korsakoff’s syndrome – indeed the condition is also referred to as amnesic-confabulatory syndrome. However, the confabulations of such patients are sometimes extraordinary, bizarre and verging on being delusional. LM’s confabulations, on the other hand, were always plausible, and therefore quite unlike those reported in other Korsakoff’s patients.

The blog also has a link to another article about the anatomy of false memories, which is fascinating. I believe that the second draft of the novel will focus more strongly on the main character’s dilemma with regards to this issue; while she is almost 80 years old, she is a smart, mentally sound 80-year-old who, rather than taking her own memories on trust, recognizes the possibility that her own brain may be tricking her. In the end it will become a sort of moral dilemma: whether or not she should trust her memories enough to act on them, or if to do so would create a false history.

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