I’ve been thinking a lot, this morning, about how people get derailed by neuropsychological exams. In the past few days, other folks whose blogs I follow have talked about their difficulties coming to terms with test results that “show” they are more impaired than they would like to be — or even that they think they are.
It’s a tough one, for sure. One of the hallmarks of TBI is that brain injury survivors are unaware of how impaired they really are. Take, for example, Charlie Elsmore, from the documentary Me And My New Brain (click here to watch it), who adamantly insists that she no longer has any issues from the TBI that nearly killed her only four years before. Just watching her in action, it’s clear (to someone familiar with TBI) that she continues to be affected. It’s not terrible. It’s just there.
On the one hand, you want people to be realistic about where they are. You want them to make good decisions and not put themselves in danger.
But you don’t want to kill their hope.
In the category of keeping hope alive, I keep coming across stories about people who have either functioned throughout life with significant brain impairments (or pieces just being missing). Take, for example, the Chinese woman who was born without a cerebellum. She went in for testing to deal with some dizziness, and she found out through imaging that he has no cerebellum, which
“is estimated to contain half the neurons of the entire brain. Experts used to think its function was purely to do with coordination, balance and controlling the body, but in the last decade or so they’ve realised that its role is far more varied and includes language, emotion, memory and attention.”
So, she’s literally walking around without a very important part of her brain.
Although this woman with no cerebellum apparently started walking late (at age 7), walks unsteadily as an adult and has slurred speech, it’s amazing that she is able to walk and talk at all. The authors of the case study say she has mild intellectual impairment, but they also note that she is married with a daughter, had normal word comprehension and was “fully orientated” by which they presumably mean she had a normal sense of time and place.
So, yeah… It actually is possible to live out your life without everything being perfectly in place — or even, apparently, having a cerebellum.
So, for a fun Sunday mental romp, take a gander at this:
According to British biochemist Donald R. Forsdyke in a new paper in Biological Theory, the existence of people who seem to be missing most of their brain tissue calls into question some of the “cherished assumptions” of neuroscience.
I’m not so sure.
Forsdyke discusses the disease called hydrocephalus (‘water on the brain’). Some people who suffer from this condition as children are cured thanks to prompt treatment. Remarkably, in some cases, these post-hydrocephalics turn out to have grossly abnormal brain structure: huge swathes of their brain tissue are missing, replaced by fluid. Even more remarkably, in some cases, these people have normal intelligence and display no obvious symptoms, despite their brains being mostly water.
Here’s Forsdyke’s illustration: a normal adult brain on the left, alongside two striking adult post-hydrocephalic ones. The black spaces are nothing but fluid:
This phenomenon was first noted by a British pediatrician called John Lorber. Lorber never published his observations in a scientific journal, although a documentary was made about it. However, his work was famously discussed in Science in 1980 by Lewin in an article called “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?“. There have been a number of other more recent published cases.
Forsdyke argues that such cases pose a problem for mainstream neuroscience. If a post-hydrocephalic brain can store the same amount of information as a normal brain, he says, then “brain size does not scale with information quantity”, therefore, “it would seem timely to look anew at possible ways our brains might store their information.”
Whereas the orthodox view is that “information relating to long-term memory is held within the brain in some chemical or physical form”, Forsdyke says that we need to consider the possibility that memory is stored “in some extremely minute, subatomic, form, as yet unknown to biochemists and physiologists” or, maybe, that it is stored “outside the body—extracorporeal!”
Forsdyke refers to this latter possibility as ‘cloud storage’, suggesting that perhaps “The brain [is] as a receptor/transmitter of some form of electromagnetic wave/particle… of course, when speaking of extracorporeal memory we enter the domain of “mind” or “spirit” with corresponding metaphysical implications.”
Who knows what else the world has to teach us?