ECT, memory and the Olympics

The Olympics are over for another four years. During the Olympic fortnight I only spotted one use of the word electroconvulsive (ECT) in the media coverage of the games. That was in an article by Clive James in the Daily Telegraph about BBC coverage of the Olympics and how commentators over-used the word “absolutely”.

Clive James writes:

“A sample conversation: “If Whatname of Ethiopia is going to win this, he’s going to have to run faster than everybody else.” “Absolutely.” Hear things like that a few thousand times and you end up doing it yourself. “How about a cup of tea?” “Absolutely.”

I apologise in advance then, if the word creeps into this instalment of my column uninvited. During the upcoming week I have an appointment to get the word removed by electroconvulsive therapy.”

Could ECT remove the word “absolutely” from someone’s vocubulary? ECT can indeed reduce people’s vocabulary – here for example is one study that shows lower scores after ECT on the WAIS (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale) vocabulary test. “Absolutely” though is not a difficult word. Rather it is one that people are familiar with since childhood and so would be less likely to be affected by ECT. On the other hand, if it is a word that has become popular only in recent times, then – yes – it is possible that if someone suffers a period of extensive memory loss after ECT (months or years) they may forget that “absolutely” is being used so much nowadays and return to a vocabulary that was fashionable months or years ago. But it is unlikely that just one electroconvulsive treatment would have that effect.

What is interesting is the fact that, as this example shows, in the mind of the public ECT remains associated with memory loss in spite of psychiatrists’ best efforts to deny or trivialize the association.

On the more literal subject of Olympians and ECT: in a quick search of the web I found just one. I expect there are others, but they didn’t come up in the search. Corinna West took part in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as a member of the US judo team. She later had 7 ECTs, as she relates here, and lost a year of memory. 

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