I’ve been having a discussion with my friend Gail about spiritual life and whether or not it affects or is affected by dementia. I’m now reading David Shenk’s The Forgetting and in his discussion of the middle stages of AD he describes how the disease progresses systematically through the different parts of the brain. The hippocampus is affected first, eroding the ability to form memories. The amygdala is next to be attacked, releasing control over the most primitive emotions and desires. Most of our brain comprises what Shenk calls “higher-order processing” and damage to these lobes results in some of the more sublime neurological losses. The first of these lobes to be affected, according to Shenk, is the temporal lobes, which “are responsible for primary organization of sensory input, for processing language, and for ecstatic feelings of spiritual transcendance” (119). When a healthy lobe is stimulated with an electrical probe it produces “powerful religious images.”
On the one hand, this might be something that I don’t really want to know: that my salvation depends upon a clump of neurons in my temporal lobe. On the other hand, those of us who are persistently romantic can look at the brain as the conduit rather than the originator of what we call the “self” or the “soul.” I’d be interested in learning more about the particular “religious images” that are produced by the temporal lobe. My guess is that they would vary from age to age, like the predominant cultural symbols that populate alien abduction tales of the present day. (Here’s a kind of dense but interesting essay.) The fact that the temporal lobe also regulates “the organization of sensory input” and “language processing” would suggest that it is something like the formal entryway to the mind (as opposed to the servants’ entrance–the brain stem).
The Gospel of John begins with the verse: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” which suggests the spiritual power of utterance to the Christian world. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”–if we lose language, what does this mean? For me, living with someone with Alzheimer’s means reinventing “the Word.” Just because you can’t sense (hear or speak) it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. In the best case scenario it is “made flesh” (heard or spoken). But it all boils down to faith. I’m not suggesting that we all be born again, but that this particular Christian symbol can guide us just a bit when the silence sets in.