A Mind @ Play

random thoughts to oil the mind

Tag: Neuroscience

The Man Who Mistook His Wife’s Head for a Hat

What happens when we are no longer able to recognise objects, but there’s nothing wrong with our ability to see? When we lose our sense of self and no longer feel the body we’re in? When the concept of ‘leftness’ is severed from our reality?

Oliver Sacks describes cases involving all these issues and more in a classic survey of ‘losses’ and ‘excesses’ in the human brain. The patients are a fascinating array of characters each suffering from such unusual problems that the symptoms seem almost comical. The eponymous man who failed to identify his wife’s head suffered from a form of visual agnosia, leaving him incapable of identifying objects, although his visual acuity was not impaired. Another sufferer had lost all ability to form new memories, and indeed was stuck at some point in his past, incapable of progressing past that point.

In a similar vein to Phantoms in the Brain, these eye-opening cases teach us much about the inner workings of the brain, they also encourage reflection on what it really means to be human, how our sense of self and perception is far more illusory than we really feel comfortable believing, and how little we really understand about how our cranial chemical factories really work.

If there’s one major detraction from this book in my eyes, it’s probably the fact that it’s written in English. The neglect the language has been shown by science leaves it so singularly pathetic at describing medical issues that we’re left with a gobbledegook of foreign words, even where Sacks tries to make the subject digestible for the average reader. Proprioception, for example, is a fascinating concept, and one so familiar to all of us that it’s amazing we don’t instinctively expect it to belong to that elite club of five senses, yet you won’t find me slipping the word into casual conversation any day soon.

On a side note, his descriptions of aphasia rather reminded me of my own feelings when learning a foreign language; that severe headache caused when trying to ram an idea down a set of neural pathways far too small to accommodate it.

[Photo by Jens Kreuter on Unsplash]

Phantoms in the Brain

Phantoms in the Brain

In Phantoms in the Brain, V. S. Ramachandran has attempted to emulate the forebears he cites in the Preface, who inspired him to write science that is both informative and interesting to the general reading public. In this he has certainly succeeded, his style is highly approachable, and the content not only comprises interesting titbits, but wholly thought-provoking suggestions and analyses. I picked up Phantoms in the Brain on the basis of a recommendation from a friend more involved in the scientific fold than I am, yet found the book to be readily accessible to these with even only a meagre understanding of the way our brains function.

The book is for the most part concerned with the fundamental inner workings of the brain revealed to us through curiously specific medical conditions, often brought about by severe physical traumas such as strokes. Some of the findings are, perhaps, fairly well known by now, yet I’ve no doubt that many will still be quite shocking to most readers. However, Ramachandran keeps the presentation of both old and new findings fresh, in his natural inquisitive approach to each individual problem. His curiosity and novel attitude in dealing with many of these strange rarities of medical science at times remind one of the naïve questioning of a young child, who by approaching problems from altogether unexpected angles can come up with profound thoughts and solutions that would not normally strike an adult.

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