What are the neurosciences all about? About understanding the brain, right? So far so good, but how do we approach the brain studies? It isn’t easy since the brain happens to be the most complex organ (and probably the most complex system) known to man. One possible way, which has brought some light to our understanding of the brain, is to look at unusual brains rather than focusing on normal brains. Understanding the differences might help us to better understand the normal brain’s functioning. Okay, so now please get ready to meet the top 5 most notorious psychiatric cases:
Probably the most widely covered psychiatric case ever. Phineas Gage was a man who suffered a terrible brain injury in 1848, which he surprisingly survived. While working at a railway construction site, a blast made an iron rod cross his head damaging part of his frontal lobe. This accident had a dramatic effect on Gage‘s personality. Having been previously a very responsible worker and highly appreciated by the men he was in charge of before the accident, he became lazy, grotesque, irreverent and with big animal propensities after the terrible blast. This interesting case supports the cerebral localisation theory, and more particularly, that (part of) our personality traits are coded in the frontal lobe.
Laurence Kim Peek
The most famous savant syndrome case ever, Mr. Peek inspired the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man. Mr. Peek had amazing mental capacities such as exceptional memory skills, to the point that he was known as Megasavant. Some of his amazing capacities include reading a book in about 1 hour (by reading two pages at once, one with each eye… simultaneously!!!) and remembering almost every word of that book. In total he could recall every single word of about 12000 books, he could approach you, ask about your date of birth, tell you which day of the week it was… and also tell you the front page news of every major paper from that day!!!!
On the other hand he was incapable of buttoning his shirt and his IQ score was around 87 (lower than average).
Carl Bennett is one of the many very interesting cases of Oliver Sacks, a renowned psychiatrist and writer. Carl Bennet (note that this is a pseudonym) suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. People suffering from this rare condition often bark and twitch, make grimaces and strange gestures and curse and blaspheme involuntarily. They usually have a lot of tics, sometimes quite violent ones such as the case of Mr. Bennet. What makes the case of Mr. Bennet very interesting is that he is a surgeon, and a pretty good one indeed! Imaging Dr. Bennet going to the operating room, jumping, screaming, touching the floor, having a lot of uncontrollable tics and then suddenly, as he concentrates all of his Tourette’s symptoms disappear. Dr. Bennet is also a fantastic airplane pilot. And again, while in the air, all his tics would disappear, but once he reaches the ground, all his symptoms will appear again….
Carol Crane is a psychologist who knew she was different than the others from a very young age. When listening to the sound of guitars, she feels like someone is blowing on her ankles. The piano makes her feel pressure on her chest and the jazz music feels like heavy and sharp raindrops. Her sensory reaction to numbers and letters is also unusual. Every letter or number is a different colour. Carol Crane is not delusional, she is just synesthetic.
Synesthesia -from the Greek syn, for together, and aisthesis, to perceive- is the sensation of hearing colours, tasting numbers or even shapes, or feeling music among other even more psychedelic experiences. In a few words, synesthesia is an unusual intermingling of the senses.
What does this condition show us? We usually tend to assume that reality is the same for everybody. Well, synesthesia shows us that it isn’t. People all around us may have a very different experience of the world. Moreover taking into account that every one of us has synesthesia in different degrees. And actually, when we were babies, we all were synesthetes.
A few months ago, Canadian scientists reported that Scott Routley, a man in persistent vegetative state for the last 12 years, was able to answer “yes” and “no” questions. Scientists asked Mr. Routley to imagine himself playing tennis to answer “yes” or to imagine himself walking through his house to answer “no”. By scanning his brain with an fMRI, they were able to accurately record his responses. This is an example of a sophisticated Brain Computer Interface, and this application is really interesting and useful. This man was not able to communicate with the external world for over a decade and now he can answer questions! To me this is one of the best examples of positive uses of technology I can imagine. And what did he had to say after all this years? That he is not in pain, which is news indeed. And finally, what does this tell us about the brain? That it may still be functioning, generating thoughts and awareness, even when there is no outward sign of consciousness at all.