I have a couple of friends that have had success with a new approach to treating problems in cognition, both with more severe symptoms than I have. I decided to check it out. There is a psychiatrist in Toronto who is a proponent of Dr. Daniel Amen’s methods for dealing with ADHD symptoms and others problems in what Dr. John Ratey calls “noisy brain syndrome.” Amen’s approach is based on clinical experience not scientific research. I say this not to be critical, although it is the basis for most of the criticism leveled at him by other practitioners in the community. The key element in Amen’s work is the use of SPECT imaging which tracks blood flow in the brain. When I finally got an appointment with Dr. John Thornton, his first question was why I had come to him. I told him that I was still having problems with symptoms of problems in cognition as well as memory difficulties and social anxiety although I had tried numerous medications and other approaches such as mindfulness combined with cognitive behaviorial treatment. I told Dr. Thornton that I had exhausted all the methods of symptom alleviation that I was aware of and so when I heard about his practice I wanted to try it. He agreed to take me as a patient and so, to paraphrase that great philosopher Yogi Bera, I came to a fork in the road and I took it.”
I woke up this morning thinking about King Arthur. This is not really that unusual. I think about Arthur a lot. I have a bookshelf with at least 30 books on Arthurian romance and Grail literature. I have been to England 10 times and most of those trips have spent at least a portion of the time visiting historical sites connected with the subject.
I’m not sure. Or maybe, more accurately, there are many reasons. At it’s basest level, the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable, as well as Lancelot and his affair with Arthur’s queen Guinevere, is about three people who love each and, in the end, this is their undoing. Tipped off by his illegitimate son, Mordred, Arthur had to charge his wife with adultery and treason and condemn her to death because of her infidelity with Lancelot. This is one version of the story made popular by T.H. White in the novel Once and Future King which formed the basis for the Broadway musical Camelot. As Arthur had hoped, Guinevere is rescued by Lancelot just before her execution. And as they ride off, Arthur is torn between the loss of them both and his relief that his wife will not die by his order. There is a wonderful line (can’t remember if its in the play or the novel) where Lancelot suggests, before all this goes down, that they just run away together from Camelot. Guinevere replies, “How can you do that to the man we both love?” That line never fails to bring a tear to my eye. To me it is riddled with meanings of duty, respect and despair.
There is another line that affects me the same way. It is in the New Testament and is spoken by Jesus to his disciples near the end of his mission. He tells them, “This is my last commandment to you. Love one another as I have loved you.”
To me these are profound statements. They are about altuistic love more than romantic love. I also believe it is the sort of love that becomes more important as one grows older. It is expressed in this statement: “You have made a difference in my life.”
Some time ago a friend told me that there are two questions that everyone asks on their death bed: Was I love? Did I make a difference?
There is a long quotation on what constitutes success that is often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson and towards the end of the list it says, “To know that at least one person has breathed easier because you have existed.”
So maybe that’s why King Arthur intrudes on my thoughts so often. At the deepest level, stories of King Arthur and his knights are about people who wanted to make a difference. Not in their own lives but in the lives of those who depended on them. Certainly there have been times when just the thought of that line spoken by Guinevere has made me realize what is really important in my life and has turned my attention otuside my own head if only for a moment.
I had the opportunity to speak to the same group of people I spoke to almost exactly a year ago and it seemed to go better this time. What did I do that was different? Two things were different. I had a couple of days warning this year whereas last year I had about a half hour to prepare. The second thing that was different is that I shook hands and spoke to as many people as I could before the event started. I thought that by doing that I could sort of get my verbal faculties in gear. I recalled that some time in the past I had been interviewing a large number of people during the course of one evening for a radio report and that I seemed to gather steam as I went along and had less and less trouble thinking of what to say or how to respond. I think the warm up idea worked although there was quite a temptation to just sit quietly until I was called upon. That’s more or less what I had done last year. I did have some difficulties but nothing on the order of what I experienced before. I also took a lot less time speaking than what I had been allotted in the belief that your audience is more likely to let you off the hook, if they don’t like what you are saying, as long as you don’t take too long to say it.
Anyone who has owned a computer knows the more RAM the better. RAM, or remote access memory, is the computer equivalent of working memory. Working memory refers to the brain’s capacity to briefly hold and manipulate information. The latest research referred to on a website called Future Pundit by a research team at Michigan State University suggests that working memory can be the deciding factor between good and great. Some researchers break this down further into verbal working memory as well as numerical working memory and visual/non-verbal working memory. I know, for example, that I have poor visual/non-verbal working memory. The other two functions seem to work okay. For me this translates into problems learning from visual experiences. Or translating verbal instructions into movement. It became most apparent when I starting doing kobojutsu (karate weapons). The sensai (instructor) would demonstrate a sequence of moves and then ask me to do it. I would stand there with no idea, actually no mental picture, of what he had just done. I wouldn’t have been able to persist at it if I had not had an understanding instructor. His name was Jason Forbes and he was a fourth degree black belt. He was patient beyond belief. But perhaps even more importantly, if I wasn’t getting it, Jason took it as his fault and try to impart the information another way. I think this separates good teachers from the truly great. I don’t ever remember Jason losing his temper with me or even his patience in spite of the fact that I frequently lost both. Well to be honest what I experienced was frustration. Jason used to say that he could see the smoke coming out of my ears and at these times he would quietly suggest that I take a break and he would move on with the rest of the class.
Why am I posting this? For two reasons-one as an illustration of the frustration and sense of defeat that often goes hand-in-hand with learning disabilities and two to honor teachers like Jason who can make all the difference in the world, who make learning possible where it otherwise might not be.
A friend asked me recently why I was interested enough in neuroplasticity to undertake the creation and maintenance of a blog on the subject. I replied, and I had to think for a moment, that I found it exciting because it was a new frontier in medicine. The friend happens to be a physician and her response was a knowing smile and a nod. I have read that almost all of our knowledge in the field of neuroscience has been gained in the last ten years. But there is more to my interest than that. Neuroplasticity means hope, hope that things will change. I read a post on a site called MD Junction by a patient who is particularly depression prone. She takes great comfort, not that new findings in neuroscience can treat her depression but that it can help reverse negative behaviors and habits. Current thinking in the treatment of neurological disorders is that if you don’t have symptoms you don’t have the disorder. For example, a firefighter might have been diagnosed with ADHD in high school but in his high stimulation job, he functions quite well–so no symptoms, no ADHD. To me this means that the disorder gets separated from the person. Not long after my diagnosis, a friend said to me at a low point, “You are not an ADHD person–you are a person with ADHD.” I still have symptoms, even on medication but I have never forgotten the hope inherent in my friend’s statement. And he would know because he too has been diagnosed with ADHD. Hope means many things but perhaps the most important is the idea of change. St. Augustine said that hope has two lovely daughters: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.