In early March, after ten days of deliberation, a jury convicted Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis Libby, Jr. on four felony counts, including obstruction of justice, false statements and perjury. The four men and seven women who sat on that jury rejected Libby's claim ? that he suffered from memory lapses ? as nothing more than a convenient excuse.
Was the jury right? Or has it ignored certain facts of midlife? In middle age, memory fades and attention fails, leaving us with what may be described as a Scooter Libby problem ? a faulty recollection of names, dates and who said what to whom. Cognitive neuroscientists, among them Denise Park of the University of Illinois, Cheryl Grady at the University of Michigan and Mark McDaniel, at Washington University are among those currently investigating the underpinnings of these midlife brain changes, which affect the hippocampus and the frontal lobes, reducing the availability of working memory and leaving us more easily distracted.
In the Starr Report, published in 1998, former President Bill Clinton, then 52, told government counsel Sol Weisenberg: "If I could say one thing about my memory...I have been shocked and so have members of my family and friends of mine at how many things I have forgotten in the last six years ? I think because of the pressure and pace and volume of events in a president's life...I'm amazed ? there are a lot of times that I literally cannot remember what happened last week."
I'm more attuned than most people to such cognitive changes, because I've just finished writing a book about what happens to the mind in middle age. In the course of my research I interviewed more than 300 midlife individuals, many of them high achieving professionals. Most bemoaned their forgetfulness: they'd had steel traps for minds in their thirties, but something had happened. As I watched the Libby affair play out, I wondered: Could he, as the New York Times reported, have had nine conversations with officials and reporters about Valerie Wilson, recalled only one of them, with Tim Russert, and gotten the date wrong on that? Could his memory be that bad?
Mr. Libby said that he'd forgotten about his discussion with Mr. Cheney, regarding Valerie Wilson, and when he heard about her again, from NBC's Tim Russert, "it was like hearing about it for the first time." John Hannah, Mr. Libby's aide, observed that in the course of a single day, his boss had trouble recalling who had told him what.
What Mr. Libby and his aide described is what cognitive scientists refer to as "faulty source memory" ? an inability to remember who told you what, which often leads to misattribution. It's not a small problem, if you consider that the American system of justice is predicated on our belief that memory is reliable ? when you are called to the stand and swear to tell the whole truth, that's what you're going to do. It doesn't always work that way: When you're faced with a deep, empty cavern where there's supposed to be information, unintentional fabrication often occurs. University of California at Irvine's Elizabeth Loftus and Harvard's Daniel Schacter's investigations demonstrate that memory is both undependable and subject to rearrangement. Instead of sending back the accurate but unacceptable message: "I don't have the slightest idea," the mind helpfully knits together and delivers a plausible, if inaccurate scenario.
In the Libby affair, memory failures were not limited to the defendant. Under cross-examination, Judith Miller, a middle-aged New York Times reporter, alluded to the unreliability of her own memory for events that occurred more than a few months in the past. Tim Russert, also middle-aged, usually so cool and in control in his role as host of NBC's Meet the Press, began to fray under prosecuting attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald's "some of your own medicine" interrogation. Russert, asked to recall the details of a three-year-old conversation about a matter that likely seemed minor to him at the time, fought his way through the cobwebs.
I don't know how many nights Mr. Libby had been up pacing before he stood before that Grand Jury in 2004, or whether, to help him through the crisis, his physician prescribed a benzodiazepine like Ativan, which would explain his preternatural calm and expressionless demeanor. But anxiety, sleep deprivation, chronic stress, and the side effects of anti-anxiety drugs (and some antidepressant drugs) can punch holes in a midlife memory that already feels more like a kitchen sieve than a steel trap. Indeed, Lewis Libby's forgetfulness could reflect a graver situation: he could be suffering from mild cognitive impairment, which is not as benign as it sounds: For many, this is the earliest stage of Alzheimer's disease. At 56, he's too young, you say? Not so. In the course of my research, I met people in their fifties and early sixties ? a former common pleas judge and a family law attorney ? who are now in the mid-to-late stages of Alzheimer's disease. For several years, while the judge wielded his gavel, and the lawyer mediated her family law cases, they struggled privately with fading memory, until colleagues caught on and forced them to retire. Many scientists, including John C. Morris at Washington University in St. Louis, hypothesize that Alzheimer's lays down its insidious roots in middle age, and that the key to successful intervention depends on early diagnosis.
Scooter Libby may be guilty, as charged, or he may be telling the truth ? his once-reliable memory has turned treasonous. As a journalist, rather than a physician, I am unqualified to comment on Mr. Libby's cognitive state, but if he is as forgetful as his aide says he is, a complete neurocognitive evaluation is in order. Such an evaluation should be conducted not by his internist, but by a team of specialists trained to assess the differences between normal middle-aged cognitive changes, and the emergence of neuropathology. Across the country, university hospitals, especially those affiliated with the National Institute on Aging's Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative are actively studying the early stages of this disease. Such a diagnosis would have profound implications for Mr. Libby. He might save himself some jail time. But he could also volunteer to be part of a more useful kind of investigation ? a scientific one, where he could participate in a study meant to help scientists find the best way to intervene in this disease, before neurons begin to die and symptoms of dementia emerge full-blown.