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Korsakov’s Paradox

by on February 8, 2014

Korsakov’s Paradox
by Marco M. Pardi

“Coincidence is the Hidden Architecture of Reality”

The translation of “YAHWEH” has concerned scholars and theologians for many years, the fundamental problem being the absence of vowels in early Hebrew writing. Thus, they were left with the tenuous problem of inserting the vowels that, in their view, made the most sense. Two of the most common translations have therefore been, “I am who am” and “I am who I am becoming”. And, some say this is the name of the Hebrew god while others say it is the name for the name of the Hebrew god. What is largely unexplored is the implicit nuance of the first rendering versus the second; “I am who am” implies a static temporality, and “I am who I am becoming” a fluid and kinetic temporality.

The Russian neurologist S. S. Korsakov (1854-1900) described a syndrome, subsequently called Korsakov’s Psychosis, he found mainly in long term alcoholics. The syndrome includes amnesia, unaccompanied by dementia. Advanced cases were then, as now, considered permanent. Although it soon gained the appellation “wet brain”, the syndrome has since been identified in non-alcohol related brain injury including what we now know as “TBI”, traumatic brain injury.

Although I had known of the syndrome, I had not seen it until the Spring of 1975 when the 50ish daughter of very dear neighbors wandered into my house one afternoon waving a kitchen knife and talking incoherently. I had been working out front and left my front door unlocked.

Remanded to the custody of her very elderly parents, a psychiatrist had diagnosed her with Korsakov’s and the parents finally agreed to involuntarily commit her to the State facility for such patients. As a Notary Public in that State, I certified the commitment papers for them.

In further study of this syndrome I learned that advanced cases apparently had zero ability to incorporate an experience into a memory. Literally, each split second of being was a sort of sui generis; in the mind of the patient nothing preceded each instant of being. I had met alcoholics who talked about “black outs”. They described “coming out of black out” with no short term memory of what had transpired shortly after they began a bout of drinking. Some doctors say that, in sufficient quantity or in chronic use, alcohol blocks the uptake of experience into memory. Further, the person in black out may in some cases appear perfectly normal. This was supported by alcoholics who recounted coming out of black out in strange cities, with no idea how they got there except airline stubs and hotel receipts in their pockets. One man I knew told people he was “allergic to alcohol. It makes me break out in spots. Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, etc., etc.” These individuals had also mastered the art of confabulation; responding to comments about something they said or did while in black out they answered with, “Yes, but refresh my memory…” and then keyed off what they were told to construct a false memory to satisfy the enquirer. But the black out – of memory uptake – episode was limited to the specific period of drinking and had no impact on previously stored memories. And, as the alcohol cleared from the body the impairment disappeared. This is not the case with Korsakov’s syndrome; everything before any given instant is gone. Permanently.

All this is sadly fascinating, like watching car wrecks. But it brought to mind certain questions on the nature of being. And, admittedly, at least some of those questions were in the context of the 1960’s aftermath and the developing 1970’s era.

The 1960’s could be characterized as a largely unfocused rejection of the stringent conformism so overly developed in the 1950’s. “Do your own thing, (Man)” became the mantra of the day, signaling broadly that one was in fact conforming to the prevailing ethos of the day. There was even a standardized linguistic intonation by which the mantra was to be uttered.

While just what your “own thing” was never got clearly stated, what your own thing wasn’t certainly did. Black slacks, white shirts, and skinny black ties were definitely not your own thing. Attending college for a business degree was not. Short hair was not. And, being a career officer in a federal intelligence agency definitely was not.

By the 1970’s this (generously called) movement had coalesced into more coherent themes. Hippie uniforms began appearing in upscale stores. During a particularly lengthy pass-through in San Francisco (1973) I saw “preworn and distressed Levi’s” selling for $450 the pants and $400 the jacket. Why hadn’t I saved mine from the ’50’s and later sold them here?

Richard Alpert Ph.D. had returned under the title of Baba Ram Dass, publishing wildly popular but apparently little understood books such as Be Here Now. Alan Watts, more accessible than D.T. Suzuki, crowded past luminaries such as Dale Carnegie off the college campuses.

In an earlier post I mentioned answering a student’s inquiry into my views on reincarnation by saying something to the effect of, I reincarnate every instant. It’s just that old habits are hard to break. A profound Korsakov’s patient has had every habit broken; every instant is a fresh start.

And thus we might wonder. At any given instant, who am I? A snowball rolling downhill, picking up some debris, shedding other debris, appearing now only as I have generally been before until I can accommodate the “present” circumstances into a persona which will instantly become yet another past?

Does the accretion of debris (experiences) shape the trajectory and velocity of the roll down the hill, and if so, how? Are there weighty things I still carry which influence these measures? Debris clinging to me somewhere that causes me to veer in one direction even while looking to another?

I sometimes think I’ve gone through life face first. Others would name other body parts. And, there have been those who, after a long absence, say “You haven’t changed a bit.”

My business in Paris concluded, I went to the Gare de Lyon on Boulevard Diderot to catch a train for Geneva. Packed with travelers coming and going, the faces and profiles were zoetropic images, flitting imperceptibly from one two dimensional pose to another as I routinely scanned. All except one. A face, 25 meters away and facing me as the eyes narrowed, then widened.

Arriving? If so, from where? Departing? If so, to where? For an instant I stood at the nexus of dimensions. What had been a relatively static period of flotsam passing on the reflective surface of a pond was now a portal into other dimensions, the past and the future. A break in my affect, a signal of recognition, could plunge me where I might not want to go. I turned my gaze, reckoning the intervening passengers and rail tracks as worthy barriers.
Of course, my “inaction” was an action, at least meant to avoid presumed consequences if not achieve a defined result. I acted on the basis of my past; I thought I was shaping my future.

And so I wondered, is there an “I” that is free? I’m not talking just about interactions with others. A muscular child, I grew to ignore the “you must play football” from adults. Taking my own turn at adulthood, my hair color changed so quickly from brown to white that I was able to see behaviors and attitudes change; after all, a man with white hair probably knows something. Other people are sometimes interesting. But I don’t live in them or for them. No, I’m talking about any instant of self awareness. Of what am I aware? Am I who I am, or just who I remember I am?

Among the functions of memory is the very basic provision of personal security. I presumably remember who I am; I presumably remember how I got here. But any 1st year Criminal Justice student knows the unreliability of eye witness testimony, and how memories of events warp and change as they become temporally distant from the event. Listening to remembrances of others about me is sometimes interesting. But are those remembrances valid in any way? How often have I wondered how those people came up with what they did?

A common observation among people who have spent time with the elderly is that their “long term memory” is outstanding while their “short term memory” is less and less reliable. Students of linguistics know that in early childhood development the neuro-muscular potential for shaping sounds is extraordinarily broad. As the child is enculturated into a linguistic domain, a language, certain sounds are rewarded while others are not. Within a short time, the child develops an approved way of speaking that, later, will be called an accent by those who speak differently. Early intervention, in the form of teaching the child other languages, other sounds, keeps the neuro-muscular pathways more open, reducing the later development of fixed accent and enabling the growing adult to attain spoken proficiency in other languages more easily. Is the personality an accent, a psychic groove carved by memories into the (perhaps) long playing record of my life, making me more inflexible as I age? Is the “I” I think I am merely the deeply carved groove of selective “memory” which canalized my persona into a certain track, into a legend? Can this persona be called “free”?

I have always been troubled by people who seem to love themselves so dearly they cannot bear the thought of someday not being them. I’ve heard people express horror at the claims that “them Orientals want that nirvana stuff, complete obliteration of self.” Two problems here: “nirvana” is a portmanteau of nir vana, “beyond wind”. It is the quiet state of awareness which is immune to the buffeting of outside influence from other people and even inside influence from ourselves. Thus, there is, in theory, a true and persisting self. That this self never becomes manifest to most people does not mean it has not been acknowledged. Nor has it been the sole province of “them Orientals”. The Greek aphorism Know Thyself (γνῶθι σεαυτόν), was one of the Delphic Maxims carved at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The Romans knew it as nosce te ipsum.
Of real interest in this regard is a corresponding fear of being with self. Whether in the discomfort of being somewhere without a radio or television playing, or in the “need to be with people”, the self seems to be an unwelcome guest. In the many interviews I have done with prisoners, some with lower legs and ankles deformed by years in leg chains, the greatest fear voiced is that of solitary confinement.
What at first horrified me as I guided that Korsakov’s victim back to her parents’ home has had me wondering ever since. Her “being” arose anew in every instant. Was there a self in there? Was that what it meant to be truly free?
And, in sitting here writing this, amid a swirl of memories, there is again the commandment to embarking Clandestine Service Officers: “Live your legend.”

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  1. So many concepts I had never paid attention to … thanks for sharing Marco !
    “Am I who I am, or just who I remember I am?” , profound !
    May I humbly add something that has value for me “Am I who I don`t remember I am ?”


  2. Thank you, Lory. My greatest satisfaction in writing comes from the interactions and contributions of people as thoughtful as you.. Your insights put meaning into my words. Thank you.


  3. Rose Palmer permalink

    Once again I am intrigued by your choice of subject matter, and astounded by your breadth of knowledge about that subject. This blog captivated my attention from the first line to the last.

    It amazes me how often your dissertation is pertinent to my life on a personal level. My alcoholic friend sometimes does not remember the next day what happened while he was drunk, but he will argue any point with “I remember exactly what happened…”; his memory rarely if ever matching my own of whatever incident is in contention at the moment.

    His niece lacks the ability to form short term memory due to her birth mother’s drug addiction while pregnant with her. She struggles to learn to read a word, only to have to learn it over again just a few lines later. Given a task, it must be done immediately or it is forgotten, along with the instructions on how it is to be done. She is in her early teen years, but mentally and emotionally she is only half that, with no prospect of change.

    The memories that I have shared with you are what they are because they made an impression on me at the time which has never left my consciousness. It is possible that they are flawed; but you would perhaps know if that was true. You have played a role in my life (and, yes, the term is intentional) even when you were not technically in it.

    So, “I am who I am”, “I am who I am becoming”, “am I who I remember I am?”, or even “have I become who I pretend to be?’; who is to know?


    • Dana permalink

      Pam, how interesting and amusing: “Have I become who I pretend to be?” As someone with a highly active imagination, I would become a lot of people indeed.


    • Dana permalink

      Rose, I think one of the people I pretend to be addressed Pam instead of you!


  4. Thank you, Rose. You have lived through, and are living with issues that I know are painful and that I wish would not have happened to you. Yet, you now are who you are – even though 40 years ago I saw a young woman who was then a fully develped spirit. It’s almost as if, in some way, these people and events were drawn to you. There is, at the same time, a sadness and a gladness to life. I’m glad that, given the sadness, you have developed that spirit even further. Marco


    • Rose Palmer permalink

      A near-perfect corollary to “I am who I am” is “it is what it is”. My life has not been perfect; better options may have led to better choices on my part, but then, would I be now who I have become? I like me, flaws and all. It is what it is. Rose


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