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Long life

I'm not sure I'd ever have passed my brain test

The neurologists reckon I have 'a moderate degree of intellectual underfunctioning'. Perhaps. But is that anything new?

20 August 2016

9:00 AM

20 August 2016

9:00 AM

In the four months since I had a brain haemorrhage I have had several tests to find out how my mind has been affected. The first tests were conducted in Siena, where I had been taken to hospital after falling ill on a spring holiday in Tuscany. A nice Italian lady showed up with bundles of problems for me to resolve. They ranged from mathematical ones of the sort one used to face at primary school — how many apples costing so much each could be bought with so much money and leave how much change — to finishing incomplete sentences and explaining events or processes depicted in drawings. Although I have never been good at maths, I found the mathematical questions easiest to answer: sometimes the drawings were indecipherable.

Back in London I underwent other tests. Lots of them were to do with memory. I would be told a long number and asked to repeat it backwards, or told a complicated story and asked to recall it after time had passed. There were puzzles to do, like re-arranging shapes and colours in specific forms, and time tests, such as listing in a minute as many possible names of animals or words beginning with the letter ‘t’. I was bad at these, in particular at one in which I was asked to name things that were ‘soft’: cushion, pillow, and baby’s bottom were all I could think of. Some of the tests were much harder than I had expected. One of the worst was trying to complete an unfinished sentence in a way that would be impossible in practice. The mind rebels against talking nonsense: ‘I climbed the mountain and…’ what? Went for a swim?


Finally, therapists at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London have reached some conclusions. I am suffering from ‘a moderate degree of intellectual underfunctioning’, from ‘mild word retrieval difficulties’, and from ‘mild and selective executive inefficiencies’. I do not doubt these findings. These are experts in their field and know what they are talking about. But I still wonder that my inadequacies in these areas can be attributed to the bleeding in my brain; they could easily have existed always. My memory has never been good, and I’ve never been good at solving puzzles. I’ve even been bad at understanding stories in films. (Though not quite as bad as my late brother, John, who once asked me to explain what was going on in Jaws: ‘What is this red stuff on the surface of the water?’)

When I was recovering in hospital in Siena, I spent a whole night worrying because I couldn’t remember the name of Jerry Hall. I had no need to remember it; I had no opinion to offer on Rupert Murdoch’s new wife. I was just anxious because she had just popped unsummoned into my head, and I couldn’t think of her name. This was, I presumed, a result of my little stroke, but it need not have been so. It could have happened at any time in my life. It is one of the features of age that one starts to blame the advancing years for defects one has experienced always. In my case, weakness of memory is certainly one such defect.

I do recognise that the stroke has made some differences. When I’m tired, I sometimes can’t find a word I’m looking for or say the wrong word instead (sometimes even one that means the exact the opposite of what I want to say). I also, in writing, sometimes miss out words completely that I think I have written down. I therefore have to reread articles more carefully before sending them to the editor. These may, I suppose, be symptoms of ‘intellectual underfunctioning’ or of ‘mild and selective executive inefficiencies’, but I don’t think I would ever have done well in any of the tests that I have failed now. Strokes can, of course, have the most devastating results, so I consider myself very lucky. And there is further comfort to be had from the Observer’s literary editor, Robert McCrum, who describes the aftermath of a far more serious stroke 21 years ago in his excellent book, My Year Off: Recovering Life After a Stroke.


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