If you're visiting a relative this holiday season and you're wondering if they might be getting senile, ask him or her to make change for a dollar. Chances are you'll be offered a handful of coins and be told, "Take what you need." If you say that you just want a dollar in quarters and dimes, you might find them struggling, especially if they get to three quarters and then discover they can't make the difference in dimes. It seems to be the first thing to go - not the ability to do math, but to have the idea that an object represents a number (quarters and dimes don't have "25" or "10" printed on them - for my dozen foreign readers) and then be able to combine them. I first noticed it in grocery stores; elderly people who were able to drive themselves to the store and pick out their items would stand at the checkout with a handful of coins and wait for the cashier to pick out the ones needed.
The world is a series of magic tricks
Jenny used to hate that I'd watch the show "House" and make the correct diagnosis almost instantly. It's a matter of knowing how the shows are written. For example, in one episode, an elderly woman comes in feeling happy for the first time in her life and her children are worried there's something wrong, as it's a personality change; I was sure the episode's writer had found the case in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" by Oliver Sachs and thus, it was, as in the book, late stage syphilis.
She also hated that I debunked things like David Blaine's holding his breath for 8+ minutes underwater. He did actually do that - as stated - but it was a magic trick; the man's a magician, after all. In any magic trick, every action has a reason. Why did Blaine stay under water for days before the attempt, being fed air through a tube? It had to be part of the trick. If one breathes concentrated oxygen for several minutes (risking brain damage), one can hold one's breath much longer - the record is, I believe 14 or so minutes. So, before the "record attempt," his assistants switched him from regular air to an oxygen tank; it looks exactly the same to viewers - breathing through a tube underwater - but allows him to cheat in a way that he couldn't if not already under water for a long time. You'd notice a man on dry ground breathing from a tank for 20 minutes.
Some odd brains
Daniel Tammet, who wrote an interesting book, "Born On a Blue Day," about the odd way his brain works, supposedly learned Icelandic in a week. This, too, is a trick, as of all the savants, there has not been a literary one. I did a post once on how supposed savants can determine the day of the week for any date, but... I can't find it now (oh, here it is); there is a lot of fakery in these reports, though Tammett does obviously have an eidetic memory (he can memorize pages of numbers at a glance). Think about how you would do it as a trick. First, learn as much of the language as you can before you tell people you're going to do it. Then, learn how to "prune" language down to as small a set of things you need to learn as possible; for example, Basic English consists of only 850 words and a small set of grammar rules. Then one only needs to learn how to answer the questions one would expect to get asked when doing such a stunt, such as "What was the hardest part of learning Icelandic?" and "How do you pronounce the name of that Icelandic volcano that was in the news?" A week is plenty of time for such a task.
J. Craig Venter, co-founder of Celera Genomics, prides himself on being a "maverick" thinker. One of the things he's admitted is that he has no visual memory, so he's forced to think differently. Lack of visual memory was not even recognized as being a possibility until recently; Oliver Sachs, the neurologist mentioned above, didn't believe it was possible when first confronted with a man, a surgeon seemingly completely normal, who claimed he didn't have a visual memory (interestingly, this man's mother was able to draw figures from memory as seen from any angle, even if she'd never seen them from that angle). I have no unintentional visual memory; if I look at something and decide I have to remember what it looks like, I can remember it visually - vaguely - though I need to remember several facts as prompts; I can sort of remember what my father looked like on one day in one place (the sidewalk between my garage and house, as seen from my bedroom window).
If I've met you, I have no idea what you look like. I get by without that, using cues other than facial recognition to determine who I see. There's supposed to be a story on the CBS news tonight about someone who is completely unable to recognize faces; that's not my problem. Oddly, though I can't remember what people look like, I can recognize them. Show me a photo of my father and I know who it is, even if he was only a child in the photo.
The big reveal?
I've been saying off and on that I'm having health issues other than the asthma. I'm not ready to say just yet what it is, but if you're clever, this post will tell you.
Fisher's Big Wheel
1 week ago