The Mystery of Memory Loss

How often do you forget where you left your keys? Or where you parked? Or an acquaintance’s name? These types of temporary memory loss are common occurrences that almost all of us encounter on a daily basis. And if you have never seen this hysterical video about  “Age-Activated Attention Deficit Disorder,” make the jump after you finish the post for a little relatable humor.

illustration for memory lossBut what happened to me a couple of weeks ago is a memory-related neurological phenomenon of an entirely different nature that I share here as a both fascinating and cautionary tale. I had flown back from Italy over the weekend and was returning to my regular routine, working out with my trainer on Thursday morning. Toward the end of our session, she commented on how wonderfully my dog, Charlie, seemed to be doing after his ACL surgery. When I responded with “What surgery?” she eyed me skeptically. But as I continued to become more disoriented, with greater memory loss, including my recent trip to Italy, she became concerned. I was lucky that she is also a trained EMT and that my sister, who happened to have spent the night, was sitting in the next room. They knew enough to check for signs of a stroke and the importance of acting quickly. After a 911 call, I was rushed off by ambulance to our local hospital where a battery of tests was performed to rule out stroke, brain or heart issues (I am happy to report all were negative).

memory lossHowever, while on the gurney, with my husband and sister by my side, waiting to be shepherded from one test to another, I exhibited classic signs of perseveration, repeating the exact same question over and over, even though it had just been answered seconds earlier. It was evidently so frustrating for all involved (except me since I, to this day, still have no memory of the incident) that my husband and nurse wrote out the note above, which they then showed me each time I asked where I was or what had happened.

memory loss as a theme in MirageHours later, when all the tests (CT scan, MRI, EKG, EEG and full blood work-up) were completed and I was on my way to a room for overnight observation, my memory began to return. It was determined I had suffered an attack of transient global amnesia (TGA). I seemed to be a text book case for this unusual neurological phenomenon that lasts up to 24 hours and has no corresponding illnesses, conditions nor lasting effects. It is sometimes associated with physical exercise or sudden temperature change and although it has been documented for many years, it is as mysterious a condition now as ever. Memory loss has fascinated not only doctors but artists ad infinitum as well. Think of all the seemingly unlikely movies themed around the fragility of memory. Considering the truth-stranger-than-fiction nature of transient global amnesia, perhaps these plots are not as improbable as originally thought. Hitchock was certainly fascinated with memory and featured it many of his films such as Mirage, above, with Gregory Peck, looking understandably paranoid and confused.

Spellbound, Hitchcock's classic about memory loss

In Spellbound, the surreal nature of the mind’s mysterious ways was accentuated by Salvador Dali’s spectacular sets, above. It certainly makes you realize, as my doctor explained, that the human brain is more like a computer than we imagine, with circuit breakers that can momentarily be switched off and then just as inexplicably return to normal. Or perhaps it can be attributed to nature’s ebb and flow. Days after my incident, I was chatting with an old friend of my mother, who revealed that her 14 year old grandson experienced an attack of TGA while playing football on the same day I had mine. My sister pointed out that day was a full moon. Who knows where the mysteries of memory loss lie but I am grateful that mine is once again intact.

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