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!!