When I Was a Retard

Several years ago, a medical accident left me with severely impaired cognitive function for about 12 hours. It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.

My IQ couldn’t have been more than 30, and my working memory was tiny. I couldn’t form full sentences, and had very few words. I could respond to very simple questions and state simple desires “Yes”, “No”, “Go”, and some curse words. My ability to form thoughts was better than my ability to speak, but not by much. My speed of thinking slowed to a crawl, and it took intense concentration to form thoughts containing more than a few predicate clauses. Many thoughts were simply impossible, because they took too long to form, and portions of the thought would be dropped from working memory before I had a chance to finish forming the thought. I would just get confused and give up.

It took some time for me to become aware that I was stupid, and I initially became alarmed. My anxiety wasn’t very sophisticated; it was basically “something went wrong”, “I’m stupid”, and “people are looking at me strange”. I knew those things were bad, but I couldn’t follow the implications far enough to know why they were bad. It was extremely hard work, and I had to give up.

As time went on, the anxiety at being stupid faded away, like some forgotten memory from a life that was no longer mine. I literally couldn’t concentrate long enough to figure out why stupidity was bad, so it stopped being bad. Same for the way that people reacted to me. I couldn’t possibly figure out why I used to think people’s strange looks were bad, so it stopped being bad.

I was definitely able to feel annoyance at environmental irritants, but the annoyance faded as soon as the source of irritation was removed, or as soon as I attenuated. I probably would have reacted violently if someone had provoked me physically, but my field of consciousness shrunk to a very small sliding window of time. As I got used to functioning this way, something very strange happened. Anxiety and unhappiness became memories of a distant past. I was aware enough of the strangeness of this to feel mildly pleased about it.

By the next day, I was back to full mental function. IQ, working memory, and speed of thought were all back. However, it was a few days before I returned to the habit of caring about things beyond a small window of time.

This experience was a puzzle that has fascinated me for many years. Here is a random brain-dump of some questions that have stemmed from this experience for me:

1) When you are cognitively impaired, you honestly don’t care, and you’re pretty happy. But success in modern life requires that you care about a lot of things. If you want to be able to form and execute multi-step plans, you need a certain level of neurotic obsession with details. You have to care. But how much should you care? What’s the “right” balance? That’s a fascinating problem.

2) It seems that, when cognitive function is impaired enough, you very quickly learn to not care, but it takes longer to start caring after function is restored. Why is there a mismatch? I don’t have any guesses, but I think the answer could have important implications.

3) While cognitively impaired, I could maintain a fairly reliable history of all of my thoughts and mental states. That is, my history was not impaired. My long-term memory was not impaired. What was impaired was my ability to pull multiple long-term memories into working memory and process them quickly to calculate implications. Once my cognitive function was restored, I continued to remember the historical details from when I was impaired, but could now integrate and process them to consider the implications. This raises a whole slew of interesting questions.

4) Living “in the moment” is about thwarting your working memory and your processing power (working memory and processing speed are inextricably linked). Thwarting these essentials probably makes you happier, but also makes you more like an animal. We hypothesize that a superhuman intelligence will have a far vaster working memory than we have, and also a far faster processing speed. So any God or demi-God who vastly exceeds us in these two capabilities will be able to experience suffering that vastly exceeds the suffering that we human “retards” could ever hope to experience. I suspect that suffering is directly correlated with working memory and processing speed.

5) Animal suffering. It seems popular to place animal suffering on the same scale of suffering with humans. In my experience, though, I was well above animals, but still quite free of suffering. My experience leads me to suspect that suffering requires self-conscious intentionality. Animals don’t have that. We humans can suffer on behalf of others, even where those others are incapable of suffering. Extrapolating this beyond humans, to superhuman intelligence, is a fascinating exercise.

6) What exactly is the link between memory and suffering? General anesthesia typically induces both paralysis and amnesia, and there have been cases where the paralysis part works, but the patient experiences and remembers the pain. It seems that there is a close link between the amnesia and the pain elimination. Anterograde amnesia is roughly opposite to what happened to me. In anterograde amnesia, the patient cannot form long-term memories, but has perfectly good working memory and speed of thought. This TED talk from Dan Gilbert explains that people with anterograde amnesia are capable of remembering emotional dispositions that form after onset of the disease, even if they don’t remember how the associations are formed. This is probably some form of operant conditioning, but also points more firmly to working memory as the culprit — loss of long-term memory does not prevent suffering. I really want to see more research performed to test theories like this.

7) If the theory holds true about suffering, does it also hold true for happiness? Or is there any asymmetry? Here is another TED talk, this time from Daniel Kahneman, about the way that our long-term memories of being happy are often very different from our actual self-reported happiness during the event. It’s absolutely fascinating.

In conclusion, I think that many of our folk intuitions about joy and suffering are hopelessly flawed, and a lot of our philosophical considerations on the topic are equally flawed. We need more experimental research to help us start forming a firm empirical foundation before further discussions.

6 thoughts on “When I Was a Retard”

  1. Interesting, since I suffered the severe cognitive deficit that goes with extreme grief, with multiple iterations as I buried three children over a five year period.

    Mine came with impaired memory and a loss of the sense of continuity (which is something that had always been quite strong in my life).

    So my experience was quite different, though being impaired down to a working IQ in the 130ish range or below was pretty life changing until I was able to really think again.

  2. @Stephen M – You’ve identified an important gap in my thesis. I have repeatedly been afflicted with cognitive impairment caused by the loss of close loved ones, too (although not as painfully as you). And I agree that this cognitive impairment did not result in an elimination of suffering for me, either.

    Looking back, I think that a large impairment to below IQ 130 was accurate for my major grieving events as well. I have never taken xanax, but I knew people who found that xanax knocked off only a few IQ points but knocked off a lot of anxiety points when they were grieving. That suggests to me that the anxiety is not so tightly correlated to IQ, although I believe there is a relationship between the two.

    Anecdotally, I suspect that my suffering level during grieving would’ve still been quite low in my “IQ 30” state, compared to the less impaired state I experienced during grieving. But I think you highlight an important distinction — perhaps it is that anxiety, cortisol, adreneline, etc. have some level of correlation with IQ, but can still fluctuate wildly out of baseline when tragedy strikes.

    I really wish that researchers were more focused on treating this topic empirically. For example, I wonder what we can say reliably about people with anterograde amnesia who lose loved ones? Is a level of mild depression permanent, and a level of anxiety non-existant? Or is it vice-versa — continual post-loss anxiety without the depression? Or is it more complicated than that? Or, what can we empirically measure about people with sub-50 IQs who lose loved ones? Can we objectively measure anxiety with something like the PSAP aggression assay (so we needn’t rely on self-reports), and does the level of anxiety, indeed, differ based upon IQ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *