The Chronicle Review

Losing It

The lament of an aging professor

October 30, 2011

I am 65, and I think my brain just hopped a bullet train heading south, leaving a shadow of itself behind, just enough to let me worry whether it is time to close up shop, before the people in gray close it up for me. Will I know when I am an embarrassment? Do my younger colleagues, sometimes very much younger, already know? Am I missing the hints that they are sending my way? Will anyone show up for my retirement dinner? Will I? Will my memory still be good enough to recall everyone who did not show up, so that I can even up the score? And just how would I, feeble and without the wit, manage that? Will I be able to come up with their names, should I manage to recall their faces? And why am I consumed with fears about that dinner some five years before it will take place in exactly the same way I would lie awake at nights worrying about botching my bar mitzvah three years before I had to go on stage and man up in the Jewish way? But then once you, yes you, stop worrying about ridiculous things like this, you'll have not only lost touch with the world, but with yourself.

What of my clearly decaying scholarly capacities? Of being unable to continue learning or, if able, then unable to retain what I have recently learned? I can't even come up with words like "refrigerator" or "kitty litter" and must endure my wife's hand gesture of irritated impatient contempt to "get on with it." Can I ever get lost in a book again without my mind wandering? I have always been suspicious of those parents who claim that their dull normal and badly behaved children are really geniuses suffering from attention-deficit disorder and need to be dosed with Ritalin or given extra time on exams. But now it seems, in some kind of poetic justice, that I have ADD, the only difference being that I really have it. My doctor actually prescribed Ritalin for me, which, as it turned out, my health insurance refused to cover because I was over 18. Not willing to pay the unsubsidized price, my avarice, itself an attribute of old age, has kept me Ritalin free.

Everything distracts me. Being interested in something has become unmoored from my ability to attend to it. Ambient noise, intrusive trivial thoughts, e-mail, stock prices, Green Bay Packer blogs (Green Bay was my hometown), variously and predictably plague me. Ambient quiet is distracting too, and sent me to the Internet to buy a white-noise machine. I interrupted the writing of this paragraph to play a game of Solitaire, and then when I lost, I allowed myself to play until I won, and then one more in case I won two in a row, and then I kept on until I won two in a row. Says the ancient rabbinical Pirkei Avot, or the Ethics of the Fathers, some 1,800 years ago, "If a man is walking by the way and is studying and then interrupts his study and exclaims: 'How beautiful is this tree?' ... Scripture considers that it is to be regarded as if he has forfeited his life (or as if he bears guilt for his soul)." If the beauties of nature cannot justify distraction, what of Solitaire? My offense is capital, but I can no longer remember which circle of hell awaits me for sins like this.

Has Nemesis gotten even with me for the contempt I did not quite disguise for the dead wood of 20 years ago by making me petrified wood in the eyes of my younger colleagues? You see them, don't you, giving signals that they want to break off the conversation you are holding them to almost out of spite, but desperately too, telling them, oh, just one more thing, but talking faster as a concession to your perceiving in some primitive part of your brain that you are boring them silly, which they can perceive that you can perceive, and so on in an infinite regress. You even find yourself following them down the hall as they head for the hills, still chattering at them, self-destructively unable to break off.

Yes, I know. There is no small amount of self-flattery in a lament of losing it: It claims, I once had it to lose. Have I inflated my own past abilities? Complaining about how much "it" I have lost is a claim to a reasonably worthy past and an attempt to claim such former heights that even if I acknowledge my descent, I am sneaking in a claim to being still plenty high in absolute terms. Besides, there are always a couple of lazy and dim colleagues whose real contribution to the enterprise is to make less lazy incompetent ones feel that we deliver value for the price. Never mind that my keep would pay for six entry-level scholars in history or anthropology who are now unemployed (I confess to making law-school wages, hence the six rather than two entry-level positions I am chewing up). Self-deception and wishful thinking, looking on the bright side in a self-interested way, keep us conveniently colorblind to our real value, seeing black when the ink is red. Or simply not caring if it is red, when we see it.

But unless you are one of those insufferable souls with self-esteem of such quality that no disconfirming evidence, no matter how devastating, can dent it, or unless you are already well embarked on dementia, these delusions about our minds are harder to maintain than the falsehoods we maintain about our appearance. You get caught once too often having forgotten things that are shameful for someone in your field not to have at your beckon. You fear too that you may be pretending to have once known it, that in fact you have forgotten nothing. Claiming forgetfulness is a way, pathetic as it is, of saving face. Where once you could blame things on drink, you now blame them on inevitable decline, and on having sampled a few sips of the River Lethe. (Drink, whether from rivers or bottles, figures in many myths of memory and forgetfulness.) In the questioning after a public lecture, you find yourself unable to deny that the questioner is thinking better about your subject than you are. You tell yourself: At least I am still capable of shame. I can still recognize when someone is a whole lot sharper than I am. How many clowns in my racket can be skewered by a questioner's comments and not even know they were shown up for frauds and fools? But that ungenerous thought, despite its truth, dares the gods to make me one of them, if they have not done so already without my knowledge.

Things just do not happen as quickly in my brain as they once did. Always a slow reader, I could count on about 30 pages an hour for a novel I was not distracted from. Now it is 25 if I can stay focused, but the distractions are more frequent too, so that the real rate is closer to 15 to 20 pages. I have to look up Old Norse words that 20 years ago I did not have to look up. I cannot add, subtract, divide, or multiply without writing the numbers down, something that used not to be the case. Just the other day, I struggled figuring out the crew size of a Venetian transport in the Fourth Crusade when the book I was reading claimed that the 200 Venetian ships requisitioned would need a crew of 27,000 to man them. That sounded high, and I figured it must have mistakenly included the troops, but I needed a pen and paper to write out 27,000/200 and then cancel out the zeroes to figure out the average per ship.

The slowing down seems to mimic in many respects the mechanics of conversing in a foreign language, one that you are not able to think in, and so must translate in a race against time into English what your interlocutor is saying to you in French so that you can respond. I now find myself conscious that I am translating English into itself before I understand what is being said. By the time I have parsed the first part of the speaker's sentence, I have already missed the next part. Maybe it is not my memory that is at fault, but rather that the processing speed of all my mental functions is slowing down. You feel every couple of minutes that you got plunked down in medias res yet again, wondering what had happened and what the hell is happening. Or to shift metaphors: It is as if I were driving through an infinitely long school-crossing zone in which I were the only one obeying the speed limits.

Worse still, I cannot remember what I have written, whether perhaps I have not published this very paragraph somewhere. In fact, many paragraphs in this essay were cut and pasted, with revisions and rearrangement, from Losing It, which appeared last month. Self-plagiarism does explain the extraordinary productivity of a few well-known academics; others just straight out plagiarize but drop a footnote and misunderstand enough of what they are stealing to keep it kosher and thus make it their own by getting it wrong; why should I be any different?

The productive capacity to forget is decaying too. Forgetting comes in more than a few flavors; some of them quite beneficent, like the ability to inhibit memories irrelevant to the task at hand that intrude and disrupt it, or the ability to forget insults or disses, or hated songs. For those things my memory is acuter than it ever was. It helps explain my late-onset ADD.

One not very rare and mildly mystifying trick of the mind is that it can block out or miss knowing something, a word or fact, so common and obvious that one would have to be a flatworm not to have internalized it. When the word or fact finally forces itself into your word-hoard, you inevitably hear it used or referred to several times within the next week. The coincidence, you feel, is uncanny, the world strangely enchanted. The only enchantment, however, is the one that put some part of your brain to sleep for so many years. You were faced with that word or fact hundreds of times in your life and somehow remained oblivious to it.

Let me offer this example of a fact that finally impressed itself upon me when the stakes were such that I had no defenses against the information. A month before he died nearly four years ago, my father suffered a sudden major insult to his brain. Within a space of a couple of hours, he had become seriously demented, having avoided that fate for 86 years. A CT scan was ordered, and the doctor showed the image to me and said: "There is nothing here that looks unusual, only the normal shrinkage that one would expect in a brain of a person his age."

Normal shrinkage? You mean the brain actually shrinks? It is not just that it wears out and silts up? It actually shrinks? Yup, said the doctor as he pointed to the frontal-lobe region. Within a week of that access of distressing knowledge, I saw any number of references to it. Several articles in newspapers, on the Internet, but that was four years ago. Now it seems that every week the popular press has some piece on it, aimed at aging baby boomers, and accompanied by anti-wrinkle-cream advertisements when you call it up on the Web. I must have thought it had been a metaphor, apparently seduced into that belief by the influence of the word "shrink" for psychiatrist or therapist. Shrinking turns out to be only part of the sad story. In language rather strange to a historian, I found that "with age, the number of dopaminergic receptors declines; many brain structures show volumetric shrinkage; white matter becomes less dense; and brains of even very highly functioning individuals are frequently characterized by destructive neurofibrillary plaques and tangles." Plaques and tangles to add to the volume loss, and spongy white matter too, even if I should be lucky enough to qualify as one of those "highly functioning individuals."

Best not to know such things. Since that chance revelation, I have become consumed with self-doubt. I can no longer satisfy myself that it was mere anxiety about losing it, and not really losing it, that was generating the symptoms, causing me to forget student names, common nouns, the authors and titles of books I had read two weeks before, and just last week blanking on President Obama's first name. No, I was suffering from nonmetaphorical brain rot. Add to that the power of suggestion, working as a demonic negative placebo to generate the need for care, rather than a magical cure as would a proper placebo. I started to feel as if my brain were balsa wood floating in a helium sea. Maybe I took too much blood-pressure medicine today and that is why I almost passed out when I stood up, or was it that I had also just found out that hypertension accelerates normal shrinkage and decline of the brain?

The only solace I took from the reading I did on the shrinking brain was that brains are already heading downhill by one's early 30s, even late 20s, some parts faster and more precipitously than others. The prefrontal cortex where a good chunk of YOU resides is last to develop (thus helping explain why teenagers are teenagers) and first to start its slow drift and then increasingly rapid plunge downward. Luckily, I had lived more than twice 30 years in blissful ignorance of that fact. I make sure to tell my younger colleagues about it lest they be caught unawares like I was. How could I have been surprised though? Why should the brain be any different from the now minuscule muscles I used to run with?

Digression, cast adrift on the buoyant Dead Sea of your own narrations, is a sign of old age, and remarked by ancient moralists and proven by modern neurology and brain science to be a symptom of natural decay of the aging brain, so let me conclude with one, which now that I consider it, is not really a digression at all, though this present clause surely is:

January 13, 2010: I am defending to a colleague the wisdom of the police rounding up the usual suspects.

Me: Claude Rains was being more than a mere cynic, which of course he was also being, when he said "round up the usual suspects" because the usual suspects were not innocent but the known criminals of whatever the city was, Tangiers, Marrakesh, I forget which.

Colleague: Casablanca.

Me: I am going to go shoot myself.

William Ian Miller is a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School. Among his books are The Anatomy of Disgust (Harvard University Press, 1997) and Losing It: In Which an Aging Professor Laments His Shrinking Brain ... , released in October by Yale University Press.