On Compassion, Forgiveness and the Brain

daenerys drogon

Photo source

Have you ever been extremely angry with somebody that you imagined you were Daenerys riding Drogon which was breathing fire on to your enemies?

(Fortunately for me, I have not been that angry with any one person in a long time, but only with a group of people terrorizing my beautiful island of Mindanao, oh yeah. I was so angry that in my imagination, I didn’t even have to be Daenerys. I was happy just to be Drogon!)

Don’t you find it exhausting when you dislike this person so much, but this person just can’t disappear from your life? You hear people talking about him/her, and it’s worse when he/she is doing so well while you aren’t?

For us, humans, anger towards somebody is most often accompanied by its best friend, jealousy. Those two are perhaps the ugliest, meanest pair ever. They will keep you awake at night, make you lose your appetite, then your energy.

If you’re smart or meet the right people who can help you get rid of that ugly pair, then lucky you. If not, that pair will ruin your life.

A few months ago, I started reading Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars. For some reason I could not finish reading it, but a couple of weeks ago I picked it up again and read the chapter called “A Surgeon’s Life,” which is about Dr. Carl Bennett (a pseudonym), a surgeon who has Tourette’s Syndrome.

This chapter was truly an eye-opener for me, and I’m writing about this because I am hoping this can somehow also make my readers re-evaluate how we judge our fellow human beings.

Dr. Bennett is highly respected by his colleagues and patients, and despite his tics, is able to perform surgery efficiently as if he didn’t have Tourette’s at all. He said the outward expressions of his Tourette’s that most people see are not the worst problems he has to face. The real ones are those within — panic and rage. In his words,

                “It’s not gentle….You can see it as whimsical, funny — be tempted to romanticize it —   but Tourette’s comes from deep down in the nervous system and the unconscious. It taps    into the oldest, strongest feelings we have. Tourette’s is like an epilepsy in the  subcortex.; when it takes over, there’s just a thin line of control, a thin line of cortex,  between you and it, between you and that raging storm, the blind force of the subcortex.     One can see the charming things, the funny things, the creative side of Tourette’s, but there’s also that dark side. You have to fight it all your life.”

At home, Dr. Bennett can give expression to this rage, not directed at people but at inanimate objects around him. His wall, his refrigerator are witnesses to this rage. One wall is covered with knife marks.

Scary? I find this very sad. That a human being who does not want to be violent CANNOT CHOOSE not to be violent.

Dr. Bennett is fortunate enough to have a family that understands and accepts him and helps him deal with all of these. But not everyone is as fortunate as Dr. Bennett. I wonder how many people out there have undiagnosed neurological disorders, committing crimes which they could not help doing? They don’t even know why they are doing it, or perhaps they think they know why they are doing it; but do they really?

I wonder if a brain scan is required of every criminal, how many of these people we would find to have neurological disorders?

This question led me to think how the human brain is very much like a computer. Just as computers have software-related problems such as viruses and bugs, the human brain can have chemical imbalance or viral infections. And just like computers that can have hardware-related problems such as overheating, a malfunctioning chip or a motherboard failure, our brain can also suffer from head or brain injuries.

When your computer is defective, do you try to save it or do you discard it, right away?

It seems computers are luckier than humans because we can easily see that our computer has a problem, and our initial reaction is to find out what caused it and how to fix it.

But with a human being, if his brain has a problem but it’s undiagnosed, we right away judge the person according to his actions without asking whether he has control over his actions or not.

What is worse is we label these people as crazy, nuts, wacko, lunatic, deranged, etc. without even knowing what caused them to become such people. Perhaps  you have heard or read about people who were known to be gentle or kind, and all of a sudden murdered somebody. People express shock or disbelief, saying it was totally out of character.

Here are some ways people can suddenly change:

Trauma to the brain can cause a drastic change in personality. 

Alcohol and drugs (medications) can change a person’s personality. 

Viral infections in the brain can cause a change in personality. 

Certain foods and food  ingredients like MSG can affect your behavior. 

Now, going back to my first question: Have you ever been extremely angry with somebody that you imagined you were Daenerys riding Drogon which was breathing fire on to your enemies?

If you have or you still are extremely angry with somebody, ask yourself whether it’s possible this person has a hardware or software-related problem in his brain, and perhaps he has no control over some of his thoughts and actions, just like, sometimes, you have no control over some of your own thoughts and actions.

And when you realize that we are all in the same boat, then you would hopefully understand your fellow human being, and perhaps forgiving will be a little bit easier (but, of course, be smart about it!)

I wonder if that is what prompted Jesus to utter these words when he was crucified: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

When he said those words, He became the epitome of compassion and forgiveness.



A couple of years ago a friend and I talked about whether human beings have free will or not. Back then I wasn’t really convinced that we don’t, but mostly because I did not have the time to think about it and read about it more. But now I think my friend may be on to something. 🙂 He wrote a book called Without Free Will. It’s well-written and thought-provoking. Check it out.

Musings on the brain on New Year’s Eve

New Year. New Life.

I took this picture early this morning on my way to work. Beautiful sunrise on New Year’s eve. The cool air, blue sky, white clouds, birds flying — all these made me feel hopeful for the coming year. Happy New Year!:)

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I am thinking about new year’s resolutions which I have had the habit of making every year for the last 20 years or so. But this year, influenced by my new-found fascination with the human mind/brain, I am thinking whether I should make them.

This is going to be about my new-found interest in the brain then, because “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” or the fingers type.

Several factors led me to my current interest, the most important of which is my son’s condition. Elijah has ASD (autism spectrum disorder). He was diagnosed when he was 2, now he is almost 5. Like some other autistic children I know of, he would laugh hysterically for no reason (this has since lessened to a considerable degree after we put him on the GFCF diet), or cry for no apparent reason, and wake up in the middle of the night screaming and kicking (this totally, well, hopefully it’s totally, came to an end after we put him on the GFCF diet).

Wanting to understand what Eli is going through, what goes on in his head when he’s laughing or crying (he can express in sentences what he wants but nothing else), I decided to read more about the brain, and my interest led me to my discovery of the great mind of Dr. Oliver Sacks. The great thing about having coffee with knowledgeable friends is you can talk about subjects that both of you really enjoy discussing, and you get not only a good feeling about being understood but also the satisfaction that you learned something valuable. I mention this because if not for my friend’s enthusiastic introduction of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, I would have kept postponing reading Oliver Sacks’ book, and I would have stayed the same person I was three months ago.

This book is one of the four books I consider to have the major influence in shaping the ME I am today (excluding the Bible, that is). The other three are Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (Huh? But yes.) The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is a collection of case histories of patients that Dr. Sacks saw in his capacity as a neurologist. I don’t think I will list him as one of my favorite writers, but he will always be one of my favorite people in the world. I say that because literature has always been my preferred reading material, and my favorite authors have always been literary writers, but I find Dr. Sacks’ writings (I just started reading A Leg to Stand On) though they are case histories, were written with understanding and compassion. The patients were written about not as subjects of an examination, but as real human beings with feelings — joy, sadness, fear, anger. Dr. Sacks made me see that there is more to a human being than what they say or what they do. For some, though they look normal to others, they may not have control over their language or actions.

There are 20 stories in this book but I will only mention four that really made an impact on me.

The first is the patient who is the source of the title of this book. He literally mistook his wife for a hat and grabbed her hair and pulled, thinking his wife’s head was his hat. He only realized it wasn’t when his wife made a sound. He could not recognize people by their faces, but by the sound of their voice. He mistook people for objects, and objects for people,addressing door knobs and heads of hydrants like they were people. I know it sounds like something you would see in a slapstick comedy, and perhaps in reality, we would still find this funny, but then when you realize that a person with this kind of neurological disorder has to deal with this every single day of his life, and could very well be the subject of mockery or ridicule, then it ceases to be funny. The patient was fortunate that he was a respected musician, whose gift for music was unaffected by this disorder.

What others may see as quirkiness is actually a result of an injury or damage in the brain. The person is not trying to be funny. He has no control over it.

The second case that I find fascinating is the man who could not recognize his own leg as being his. He woke up, saw a leg on top of his own that he thought somebody had put there as a joke, and he threw it away, but as he did he fell off his bed. Then he thought, for some reason that that leg had possessed his own leg. Most people would just say he’s mad. But this kind of neurological disorder can happen to anybody, to “well-balanced people, who had shown no hints of any madness before.” This disorder is supposedly associated with lesions of the brain.

No, the man was not possessed by an evil spirit. There was a large tumor in his brain which damaged his thinking faculty.

The third patient is called Martin. Here I would like to quote Dr. Sacks, as I don’t think I can describe Martin and his condition as well as he did:

     As a child, Martin had “meningitis which caused retardation, impulsiveness, seizures, and some spasticity on one side. He had very limited schooling, but a remarkable musical education — his father was a famous singer at the Met.

     ” … [He] had an amazing musical memory — ‘I know more than 2,000 operas,’ he told me on one occasion — although he had never learned or been able to read music….He had always depended on his extraordinary ear, his power to retain an opera or an oratorio after a single hearing. Unfortunately his voice was not up to his ear — being tuneful, but gruff, with some spastic dysphonia….His father transmitted not only his musical genes, but his own great love for music, in the intimacy of a father-son relationship, and perhaps the specially tender relation of a parent to a retarded child. Martin– slow, clumsy — was loved by his father, and passionately loved by him in return; and their love was cemented by their shared love for music.”

Martin could not keep a job because he was not “normal,” strange. Yet when it came to music, he was known as a “walking encyclopedia,” and when he participated in musical events no one would ever think there was anything strange about this man.

If his brain had not been damaged, would Martin possibly have a happy, comfortable life? Would he have retained his musical gifts? Or were his talents a product of the brain damage?

Finally there was the 19-year old Indian girl who was diagnosed with a brain tumor of low malignancy when she was seven, and which recurred more malignantly in her 18th year. As her tumor grew and moved closer to her temporal lobe, her seizures became more “frequent and stranger.”

As her condition grew worse, the hospital staff “would see her rapt, as if in a trance, her eyes sometimes closed, sometimes open but unseeing, and always a faint, mysterious smile on her face. If anyone approached her, or asked her something, as the nurses had to do, she would respond at once, lucidly and courteously, but there was, even among the most down-to-earth staff, a feeling that she was in another world, and that we should not interrupt her. I shared this feeling and, though curious, was reluctant to probe. Once, just once, I said, ‘Bhagawhandi, what is happening?’

‘I am dying,’ she answered. ‘I am going home. I am going back where I came from — you might call it my return.”

A little over a week later, she passed on.

Reading this part of the book reminded me of the many dying people I personally of, who talked about their brothers or sisters or nephews who had gone on before them, waiting for them, bidding them to come and join them.

These stories and the rest of the 16 cases in the book show us how the brain controls not only our body, our actions, our words, but also our past, present and future.

This leads me to one of my important questions, which at first may seem philosophical, but actually is not: Do we have free will?

But I will save that for my next musing.

So I guess for now, because I have not yet answered my question on free will, I can still make my New Year’s resolutions:

1. Read more.

2. Think more.

3. Write more.

4. Save money.

5. Be a good person.

What’s yours?

May your 2016 be filled with peace, love and happiness!

Happy New Year!!