Friday, February 13, 2009

Digging for some words

Some of you may have noticed that I am something of a naive polymath. Or, at least, that I seem to have accumulated a lot of esoteric and largely useless knowledge for a guy who never quite got around to finishing high school. I guess I have a sort of Faust complex, but I've never been willing to commit to more than hocking my soul. (And to quash any rumours before they start, let it be known that I never failed to redeem the ticket.) I just gotta know, you know? Lately I have become rather obsessed with linguistics. I thought I knew a bit about the subject. I mean, my military career in communication electronics got me into information theory, and Shannon led to NLP, which eventually led to Chomsky (I compulsively followed the links before Sir Tim gave us the web), and ol' Noam was the be-all and end-all of linguistic theory for a very long time. It all made perfect sense. Then I began to experience aphasia.

That hasn't shown up in my public life, and that makes sense. There's little point in trying to blog, post cogent comments or answer technical queries when you can't glue the words together, either because the words or the glue is missing, and I haven't has anything like a hot potato in my inbox for quite a while. Even picking up the phone is pointless at times. Only my closest face-to-face friends have seen what I have sometimes become, and then only when I thought I was well enough at the beginning of a long conversation.

If you know how language works, you ought to know how it breaks. One ought to be able to predict modes of failure. If one part of the brain gets stuck, you might expect to lose structure; if another goes, then you might find it difficult to fish in the big bucket o' words for the right one. What I have been experiencing doesn't jibe well with what I knew.

Let's take the vocabulary failure instance first (in transmissive rather than receptive mode). Sick or healthy, we have all had occasions where the exact word we want to use seems to be just slightly out of our grasp. We know we know it (and we know that we'll wake up at about 2:37 next Tuesday morning with the word frontmost in our consciousness, a general sense of urgency about the word, and absolutely no idea why it's so damned important), and can usually slip in a substitute after a short interjectory "uh" (those outside North America may wish to read that as "er"). No harm, no foul. I thought that a pathological vocabulary slip would work much the same way, but I found that my indexing failure was somewhat more catastrophic. For instance (and this is contrived for illustrative purposes) if I were to try to name a particular shade of red and missed, I would find that it wasn't just "carmine" that was missing, but everything related to crimsons. And if I tried to climb back up the tree, I'd find that "red" was gone, along with "colour", "shade" and "tone". Hell, I couldn't even name things that were red to get the analogy across. Have you ever tried to make an onamatapoeic noise for an abstract concept? I have. I found that my mind is organised very much along the lines of Roget's classic thesaurus (the big one that's conceptually organised, not the little alphabetical list of synonyms they sell to schoolchildren) — when things go missing, great conceptual swaths disappear, not just words. Mainstream linguistic theory doesn't suggest anything like that level of coupling.

I am still trying to find a way to express the more structural failure modes. That will be harder because the recording of the experience in my brain was made through the filter of the failure itself. I'd love to tell me what was going on, but it's going to take a while to wade through an unorganised bucket of words and impressions that are more Rorschach than Rembrandt. The trick will be in teasing out the actual experience, uncoloured by pet theories or preconceived notions.

As always, the best opportunity to examine how a complex system works is to examine closely what happens when a part of it breaks. As a person who has experienced the breakage, was aware of it at the time, who can describe the phenomenon from the victim's perspective, and who has witnesses who can tell me what they saw "in the wild" (as opposed to in contrived interviews), I am in what seems to be a unique position to contribute to the knowledge pool.

Or maybe I'm just looking for a new way to feel important. Whatever. It makes me happy.


Anonymous said...


I'm having a little trouble with my memory, misplacing the names of things usually. I had a bang on the head just before Christmas and I've been blaming the lapses on that.

The surgeon who fixed my ear following the bang thinks a single knock to the head is unlikely to be responsible. He suggested getting more sleep and having less stress at work.

The interesting piece is how I'm developing coping strategies. My current best which I think of as piecing a jigsaw puzzle together:

I can usually take two or more facts about a thing or it's relationship to something else and somehow manage to get the name of the thing I'm looking for. The other is to stop thinking about it and let it bubble up to the surface.

Looking forward to more posts from you as you feel up to making them.

BTW I'm a big fan of Ted(.com) and I think you would/could make as good a contribution to their series of talks as any I've heard so far.

Good health,

Charles Robinson said...

Stan, this makes a lot of sense, from a lot of perspectives and in a lot of circumstances. Regardless of the trauma, explaining it from the inside is often more difficult than observing. But without the inside perspective a lot of things could be misinterpreted. I look forward to you sharing your journey of discovery, I think it's fascinating.

In case you haven't seen it, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, did a talk at TED about her own stroke. She was both horrified and excited at being able to chronicle her experience. It sounds like you are on a similar path toward discovery.

Mark Vincenzes said...

Hi Stan,
I too find the topic fascinating.
How the mind works, what can go wrong,
how to cope when it does, etc.
I'm looking forward to reading more
of your story.

STAG said...

Yeah...when I died, and the paramedics shocked me back to life, I found out how much damage can be done by twenty minutes without a heartbeat. I had to work hard to rebuild MY mind. Still not there yet, and it has been nearly eight years.

I found the process fascinating. My friends and family found it annoying....especially when in order to keep the conversation going, I would substitute words. Sometimes the substitues would work well, other times I would get "the look".

Good luck with that. I had some phenomonal luck with my search/recovery ...I discovered that it was the address codes which were missing, not the information. I just built up a whole series of new address codes.
Nobody said it would be easy. Especially since there were other problems at the time...mostly associated with being dead for so long.

Anonymous said...

How does one not get "...around to finishing high school"? The only way to not finish is to either flunk out or quit. Not that there is anything wrong with being an autodidact (most every famous scholar from antiquity was one)...I was just curious why you would not finish high school when you are obviously a bright individual.