Feb 5, 2010

No Wonder Alzheimer's Causes Emotional and Behavioral Changes

It seems that if the portion of our brain that deals with having to remember things is “busy”, then it is difficult to make rational decisions.....
By Max Wallack

The Head of School at Boston University Academy, Mr. Berkman, publishes a weekly message to all students and their families. Below is his message for this week:

Dear Academy Families,

Last week I heard a fascinating piece on WBUR about the brain. It seems that our short term memory can only hold about seven numbers (a phone number), so an experiment was conducted to determine how the use of memory can influence decision-making.

Each subject, individually and apart from any other, was told either two (easy) or seven (hard) numbers to remember, and asked to walk down the hall to another room where he or she would repeat those numbers. In the hallway, as if spontaneously, a woman would offer the subject a snack, asking if cake or fruit were preferred.

With enormous statistical clarity, the majority of two-number subjects chose fruit, and the majority of seven-number subjects chose cake!

The theory of what might have caused this clear division stems from the fact that our brain has two systems at war with each: one rational, one emotional. The rational brain understands the sins of cake and the merits of fruit, while the emotional brain just wants sugar and the sticky pleasure of cake.

When a subject was “burdened” with remembering seven numbers, the theorists posit, the rational brain was otherwise occupied when the snack question interrupted the walk down the hall, and therefore the emotional part of the brain won the (limited) internal debate and picked cake.

Those subjects with only two numbers to remember were more likely to have their rational brains win in favor of the healthy snack.

Who knew that humans can be so easily dislodged from making rational decisions – a mere seven numbers can disrupt our logical process and allow our emotional tendencies to take command! With proper daily training, however, I would suspect that we can overcome such an instinctive failing. At the Academy, we call this training homework.

Warm Regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School
Wow, reading this message gave me sudden insight into the behavioral changes in Alzheimer’s disease!

It seems that if the portion of our brain that deals with having to remember things is “busy”, then it is difficult to make rational decisions. Doesn’t it make sense that it follows that if this memory area is defective, we get the same response – difficulty making rational decisions and the need for instant emotional gratification?

Thank you, Mr. Berkman, your letter helps me have an easier-to-understand image of what is going on in the brain of the Alzheimer’s patient.
Max Wallack is a student at Boston University Academy. His great grandmother, Gertrude Finkelstein, suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Max is the founder of PUZZLES TO REMEMBER , a 501(c.)3 charitable organization. PUZZLES TO REMEMBER is a project that provides puzzles to nursing homes and other institutions that care for Alzheimer's and dementia patients.

Subscribe to the Alzheimer's Reading Room
Enter Your Email Address

Popular articles on the Alzheimer's Reading Room

Original content Max Wallack, the Alzheimer's Reading Room