That's where godfathers are handy. Or at least, my godfather. Talal has a remarkable gift at being able to articulate those difficult, seemingly amorphous ideas that you sort of feel instinctually but can't quite articulate into concrete explanations.* It's what makes him a great teacher and a great social scientist. Maybe it's just my bias, but I honestly believe he has the potential to be another Weber or Foucault.
Right, so enough gushing about my godfather and onto why I'm gushing. A few days back he posted an answer to a friend of his about what the fog -- the cognitive problems -- that Multiple Sclerosis produces are like. I happened to read it last night after having tried to explain to my old friend why my return to the academy is not imminent and wished that I had read it before because it explained so much.
I don't have Multiple Sclerosis -- no lesions on my brain. But for both of us the cognitive problems come as a result of the profound fatigue thinking causes. For Talal it is due to nerve conduction. For me it's due to a number of possible factors: decreased blood flow to the brain, reduced cardiac ability, decreased gray matter, problems with the brain circuits involved in processing information, and/or having to use more of my brain to accomplish the same cognitive task as a healthy control.
Talal uses the metaphor of a computer to explain how the MS brain and working memory, well, work:
A computer has a processor, memory and a hard-drive. My processor is fine. I think pretty quickly and accurately. My hard-drive is fine. People with Alzheimer’s essentially have a bad hard-drive that is destroying all the data on the disk. My problem is that I have shit for memory. Just like a computer that’s running the latest software with low memory, I can still do the task. It’s just slow. I can still do virtually all the things I did before. I simply cannot do them efficiently.
Now, this also makes me smile a bit when I consider my laptop, which I've bitched about here on numerous occasions. It overheats easily so some of its circuits are not working quite as well as they used to, so I can't run multiple programs as much. And I can't run programs that use a lot of desktop memory, such as McAfee virus software, or can run, say, Picasa or Adobe photo software but only by itself and for very limited amounts of time. My own brain seems to work in a similar manner.
Talal also talks about the vocabulary he created to be able to talk about what is happening. The first term he uses is "objective field" which is "a cognitive “space” delineated by networks of associations that lead the mind to group certain objects together as an interrelated and discrete whole." The world is filled with tons of "objective fields." When you walk into the kitchen there are the objective fields of the counter, the cupboards, the refrigerator, the drawers, etc. And when you go from one field to the next, you forget about the field before. Or it takes more of an effort to remember the field before and associate it with the new field.
When it comes to academia, I already have a lot of "objective fields" in my old noggin but my job is to create new structures using the objective fields already there as well as new ones I take in via research.
"...what I would have done before MS was to loosely define the contours of the whole pseudo-structure in my mind, find the general boundaries of the part I wanted to write up and distill that bit into a coherent, well-crafted theory. But my short-term recall is shot. Trying to cut out the bit in my mind that I want is virtually impossible. I don't know the pseudo-structure very well, so it exists only in short-term memory. I have to do two things at once: recall the whole structure and then step away from it and criticize it. That's too much brain-power at one time. I keep losing focus on the large structure and I explore it to criticize it. In the seconds in which I lose track of the process, I start following all the luminous connections that my imagination has generated and, as a result, keep losing track of the task."
For Talal, what works is to spend a few months writing down the "pseudo-structure," wait a few more months, then come back to critically evaluate what's important and what to ditch. And during all that effort, he'll have to stop and rest his brain quite a lot by using games that don't require so much effort, such as Spider Solitaire.
For me, piecing together the structure (like, say, my thesis) takes even more time -- we're talking years. And even the simple cognitive tasks like playing Spider Solitaire that Talal finds relaxing will make me very tired.
You might notice how this relates to my blogging. I go through periods where I write a lot about politics or the Middle East and it generally means I'm feeling well enough to give structure to some already established objective fields, if you will, floating around in my brain, but don't have enough energy to create new structure out of the new ideas that are also floating around. Then there are days like today where I have enough energy to make connections among new and old objective fields and create at least some sort of synthesis among them, or at the very least, a summary (though my brain may still freak out in regards to, say, smells like it is today). And, of course, there are plenty of days where just stringing my fingers across a keyboard is too much effort.
On some level, I feel like I've been living with the fog for so long that my eyes have sort of gotten used to it. Or that I'm able to sort of feel my way around, i.e. my intuition, but that can be hard to put into words. Though, as a writer, I can't help but want desperately to do so.
And while I would never in a million years wish that Talal had MS, it's been so nice having someone who is often better than I at articulating what's going on. Not to mention just having someone who gets it.
*My favorite is his explanation of the Enlightenment vs. Postmodernism: "The Enlightenment taught us that we are God; Postmodernists have figured out that we're not and are depressed about it."