Monday, May 2, 2011

Coming Unstuck in Time

Neuroskeptic posted about this case study of two autistic young men who experience "time slips" --- extremely vivid memories, as if they are reliving the past instead of just remembering it:


Case 1, a male patient, was 16 years old at the time of his first visit to our hospital. He had not shown any delay in language development but had been isolated and unable to make friends since his infancy. In addition, he was extremely clumsy. He was extremely afraid of developing liver dysfunction. He had been bullied by a classmate when he was in the 8th grade; thereafter he refused to go to school and began to stay indoors. One day, he clearly recalled bullying incident that had occurred a few years earlier and re-experienced the feelings of fear and frustration as if he were once again experiencing that event. Thereafter, he often had similar experiences, even though he did not purposely intend to recall the event, and he became strongly distressed. He and his family stated that the recalled content was always the same. He thought that the distress could only be relieved by obtaining revenge on the boy who had bullied him, and he visited the boy's house with a knife. He was subsequently admitted to the emergency ward of our hospital.
The patient continued to experience the [time slip] even after he was hospitalized. If he saw any man with an appearance similar to that of the boy who had bullied him, he recalled the same experience of being bullied and became violent. The patient's doctor and the ward staff observed that the patient made no effort to avoid the recall stimuli but instead seemed to approach the stimuli. ...


Case 2, a male patient, was 27 years old at the time of his first visit. He had shown no marked clinical signs of delayed language development. However, since an early age, he had exhibited disturbed reciprocal sociality and did not have any close friendships. His interest was limited to collecting figures of comic characters. He began to be bullied during junior high school. He entered senior high school but quit during the second year. Thereafter, he tended to seclude himself at home. One day, he watched his neighbor discarding a cigarette butt in front of his home. Thereafter, he began to be annoyed by that memory. Almost every time he heard the voice of that neighbor or saw that man, he would leave his home and curse at the neighbor. His behavior became more violent and he eventually threatened the neighbor with a wooden sword. Because of this event, his family brought him to our hospital as an emergency patient.
In this case, an acoustic or visual stimulus (the voice or appearance of the neighbor) provoked the [time slip] resulting in the recollection of the same visual scene accompanied by the vivid emotions that he had experienced at the actual time. He took no measures to avoid remembering the event and tended to advance closer to the neighbor.

The authors of the paper observed four cases of time-slipping autistic patients in all; two of the troublesome recurring memories involved bullying at school, and two involved bad experiences with neighbors. All of the instances of time slipping that they heard about were bad; the memories triggered strong, unpleasant emotions and drove all four young people (three male and one female) to violence.

I mentioned in the comment thread at Neuroskeptic's blog that I experience this kind of vivid, immersive reminiscence --- it can be like those described in the article, where I remember being bullied or some other unpleasant experience with no buffers between me and it, but most often the things that come up are emotionally neutral, and not even necessarily episodes from my life; they might just be something I've seen before.

An example of the latter sort of memory might be my remembering, for decades, a random doodle I drew in preschool. Even now I can call it up --- a monster's face, with scraggly green teeth and a huge lumpy oval of a head. I even remember what color markers I used to draw it. I have similarly clear memories of making colored spinners out of paper plates, cutting off the edges, using a compass to bore a hole through the middle, and drawing a checkered pattern of concentric rings in contrasting colors. I would string a long piece of yarn through it, with a big, bulky knot on one end, and then spin it so that it would climb up the string and into the air, like a brightly colored UFO. This would captivate me for hours; I probably spent most of my schooldays in fifth or sixth grade doing this.

Most of these are really fragmentary, though; a single image, or a single multisensory impression. I don't really have flashbacks where I relive an incident, as the guys in the article seem to be doing. Even when I do recall an episode, it's only fragmented impressions that come back with this immediacy; the whole episode I have to reconstruct with narrative memory, as most people do.

I said on Neuroskeptic's blog that I considered my randomly retrieved archived sensory impressions to be a visual analogue to echolalia --- I hear echoes in my head of many of the things I hear, and sometimes I feel compelled to repeat them aloud; these memories are like visual echoes. However old they are, they persist, and sometimes they'll find their way into my conscious mind and I will hear the sound, or see the image, again. Even if I first saw it ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago.

1 comment:

Laura said...

Sounds a lot like de-ja-vu to me.