I can't imagine what it's like, though I watched my father endure it for nine long years. He was taken by Alzheimer's, the disease that creeps in and slowly erases what you know until, eventually, there's no more to erase. How this happens is still a mystery, but this short animation by Po Chou Chi tries, I think, to make poetic sense of what goes on.
It's the story of an old woman who lives alone in a tower, a rickety tower that feels like her rickety body, trying to stay up in the storm. Though she's alone, she can pick up an old hat, and her mind — represented by a set of drawers that protrude from her body — will scan the object, unlock a series of memories that tell her, that's the hat your husband wore back in 1982, that's why it's familiar.
The drawers (and a lively computer) are, I guess, Po's metaphor for how we remember. Neurologically, that's not quite right. We don't store memories in locked cabinets, but Po Chou Chi isn't a scientist; he's an animator, an artist, and he borrowed the drawer's idea from a painting by Salvador Dali.
It doesn't go well for the old lady. As the story progresses, so does her dementia. The drawers stop working. Her mind has more and more trouble recollecting. The images grow pale, blank; she seems on the verge of fading completely, but the ending, if that's what it is, is a gentle one, eased in good part by her loving husband, who may be gone, but isn't, quite.
Robert Krulwich is co-host of Radiolab, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning program that examines big questions in science, philosophy and the human experience through compelling storytelling. Today, Radiolab is one of public radio's most popular shows. Its podcasts are downloaded over 4 million times each month and the program is carried on 437 stations across the nation. In addition to Radiolab, Krulwich reports for National Public Radio. “Krulwich Wonders” is his NPR blog featuring drawings, cartoons and videos that illustrate hard-to-see concepts in science.