The time-warp room and other medical breakthroughs

Alzheimer’s disease or senile dementia is a disease of the brain that causes memory loss and eventually the destruction of the social self.
We don’t now the origins of this disease but we assume that it is caused by an external agent (aluminium?) or an internal condition (amyloid beta deposits?).
Perhaps we should also entertain a cultural cause.
Coombe End Court, a retirement center in Marlborough, Wiltshire has a "time-warp" room. It’s outfitted with a gramophone, manual typewriters, a telephone made of Bakelite, and furniture from the 1950s.  
That this "reminiscence room" is loved by residents is not surprising.  Who doesn’t like to see the return of an "old friend" from the object world?  What captured the attention of the gerontological community (and the magnificent website Retronaut) was that this room as lead to a "dramatic" drop in the need for the anti-psychotic drugs given those who suffer from Alzheimer’s.  Or as my friend Leora Kornfeld puts it, "parquet floors and rotary dial phones appear to accomplish what neuroleptic drugs can’t."  
And I fell to wondering whether these things improve the condition because it is their absence that, in some small way, helps create the condition.  
My argument: perhaps the object world of consumer goods and material culture serves us as an anchor or an orientation. Perhaps we are reaching something like the limit of the human capacity to endure change. Perhaps the constant reformation of the material world has the effect of unmooring us. 
The people who live at Coombe End Court are close to being the first generation of the species to be shot from the cannon of structural change.  Certainly Western societies have seen astonishing change take place over the last 400 years.  But I think this change was (or at least felt) the exception, and stasis was the rule.  Our world might be turned upside down by a religious reformation, a political revolution, or a technological transformation, but there was some hope that things would eventually "return to normal."
This condition, let’s call it the "this too shall pass" condition, said that we could hope for change to pass and some normal, if only a new normal, to emerge.  The people who live a Coombe End Court began their lives with this condition in place…and lived to see the condition rescinded. 
One of the symptoms of structural change is the constant reformation of the material worlds. My favorite example of this is the Razr phone that rose to prominence in the 1990s.  It was once the apple of my eye.  It is now faintly ludicrous.  That took roughly 10 years. Remember Friendster?  Neither do I.  The material and the virtual world churns with novelty.  I write this from a hotel room in Rochester.  It’s not a high end place, but all of the design decisions represented in my room will be rethought and replaced in a couple of years.  I am wearing Levi’s and a Polo shirt.  These are American standards, I guess.  But every time I go to a conference in Soho, I am reminded of how far my fashion "sense" has falled from currency, and how close I am now to self ridicule.  
If I lived at Coombe End Court, if I were 75, say, I might well feel like someone who had fallen into a swift running Heracletian (sp) current and was now being pulled out to an unfamiliar sea.  The world that defined me recedes from view.  Increasingly, I am obliged to live in a world I don’t much recognize.  
I am not saying that this cultural condition causes Alzheimer’s disease.  But it is not hard to see how it might set the stage.  After all, there is no formal reason why a time-warp room should have therapeutic effect. Why isn’t it as unrecognizable as the rest of the world?  But this room "rewinds" time and returns us to a material culture that has not been defamiliarized by new fashions, technology, social practices, and ideas.  Oh, to see that Bakelite phone again.  Suddenly I am no longer accelerating out of the world.  To use Cliff Wild’s metaphor, my rights of residency are now respected. 
Don’t get me wrong.  This is no "world we have lost" nostalgia.  I was born a modernist.  As far as I’m concerned, the future can’t get here soon enough.  Part of me says, "the present was great, but let’s see what else you got."  The issue here is not slowing the rate of change, or somehow removing ourselves from the torrent of change.  It’s to think of ways to redesign the self so that it is less vulnerable to the effects of change.  


Wild, Chris. 2010.  Retronautic Rest Home. How to be a Retronaut: if the past is a foreign country, this is your passport. December 1, 2010. click here.


To Leora Kornfeld.

5 thoughts on “The time-warp room and other medical breakthroughs

  1. arvind

    We submit to Proust, the expert on the matter:
    “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses…with no suggestion of its origin…”

    “Suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was of a little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings…my Aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea….Immediately the old gray house on the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set…and the entire town, with its people and houses, gardens, church, and surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being from my cup of tea.

    “When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls…bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.

  2. Tom Asacker

    I’m not so sure we need to redesign the self, as much as redesign the concepts of family and community. The torrent of change can overwhelm an individual, but has less affect on a cohesive group.

  3. steven weiss

    Redesign the self to embrace change not become” less vulnerable to the
    effects of change.” I was a caretaker for an alzheimers patient. They do
    go through stages from the past to the present to a blank slate. Do they
    cling to memories no doubt about it. Do they react to the present
    sometimes. When they have blank slates the past and present has
    been forgotten. As you know better then anybody else, we are all slow
    to change basic values, that is the anchor. Thank god for that.

  4. hitsamty

    Grant, something that always strikes me whenever I visit India: Even though there are a huge number of homeless, diseased, and downtrodden people on the streets, I have almost never seen people with Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, etc. Whereas in Canada, I seem to see them everywhere.

    I think it has to do with the severe effects of isolation. In India, as wretched as the life is for those at the bottom, there is a very strong sense of community- beggars have families, cronies, bonds with vendors at tea stalls and police constables…Poverty is a very shared experience in India, and that seems to shield the poor from the worst effects of it.

    However, in Canada, although the poor/homeless have a much higher standard of living and access to more facilities, their journeys are largely characterized by isolation. It’s a crippling sensation, to feel that you are all alone, and I believe this leads to a high probability of Alzheimer’s.

    I came across this great New Yorker piece by Atul Gawande on the effects of solitary confinement, please have a read:

    Looking forward to your thoughts,

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