What my mother’s sticky notes show about the nature of the self

People who perform prodigious feats of memory (repeating a long series of numbers, for example) often make use of a technique called the ‘mind palace’, also known as the ‘method of loci’, the ‘Roman room’ and the ‘journey method’. The technique is ancient – versions are described by the Roman rhetoricians Cicero and Quintilian – and involves imagining a building, such as a palace or house, and associating each item to be remembered with a location in that building. One moves through the imagined structure room by room (thus the ‘journey’), finding the items in question.

I’m caring for my 98-year-old mother Joyce, who’s had increasingly debilitating memory problems for many years. For a decade or two, she managed to compensate for these problems with amazing effectiveness. To a significant extent, her life was arranged to make it possible to function as she remembered less and less. The process – not atypical of people with memory problems, I’m told – indicates that the mind palace is more than imaginary. As she lost the internal structure of memory, the galleries of her mind became literal and external. First systematically, then chaotically, Joyce Abell has used her home here in rural Virginia as her memory.

She needs more help, I concluded as I consolidated the notes, and my kids and I have been living with her on and off, or in shifts, since then. That means that people are here, rearranging her pots and pans and her furniture, to some extent, so we can do what needs to be done (cook for her and also work remotely, for example). The process of change has gotten somewhat easier; she has grown more flexible as time has gone on. But there has also been a lot of sadness and anger, because there has been a lot of loss. She feels that she has lost each thing that gets moved, and a bit of her self besides.

I think, in some way, she experiences every change to her house as a change to her self, and I think that, in imagination and in reality, with dementia or without, there is no firm distinction between who we are and where we are.

Read more in Psyche.

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