Friday, 25 May 2007

A flicker of light in a sea of darkness

There's a scene in John Bayley's memoir of the late, great Iris Murdoch, in which he recalls her saying to a friend “I see an angel. I think it's you.” Murdoch had recently developed Alzheimer's Disease and the friend in question was helping her shower. Such moments of lucidity can be like a flicker of light in a sea of darkness to the relatives and friends of people suffering from dementia. They are also of interest to scientists and clinicians seeking to understand how the mind is affected by the ravages of disease.

Now David Hawkins and Neill Graff-Radford at the Mayo Clinic have reported the case of an 81-year-old lady suffering from probable Alzheimer's disease, who despite severe cognitive difficulties and widespread brain atrophy, has retained the ability to pun.

For example, in response to hearing her son say “Dad let's charge up the battery for your new phone”, the patient said “Are you going to charge him for that?”

After her son said “That dinner was great, but I'm really full,” the patient replied “It was a very fulfilling meal”. These and many other examples were recorded by the woman's son over a period of three hours and were said to be representative of her conversational style. Moreover, the lady seems to realise she's being witty – she laughs after making these remarks and admits to being very good at punning.

Prior to her illness, although she was humourous and quick-witted, the lady's verbal humour was not anywhere near so prolific. It's almost as though the disease has unlocked this ability in her.

“Interactions with patients such as the 81-year-old female discussed in this report serve to remind professionals working in this area that each individual is unique and may possess abilities that are remarkable in the presence of extensive degenerative neurological findings,” the authors said. “Focusing on such positive attributes can be helpful not only for the patient but also for the family members in dealing with the difficulties of AD.”

Hawkins, D.B. & Graff-Radford, N.R. (2007). The ability to pun may be retained in Alzheimer Disease. Neurocase, 13, 50-54.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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