Wired for weirdness

Unthinkable
An Extraordinary Journey through the World’s Strangest Brains
Helen Thomson
Hachette
290 pages; Rs 399

The brain is the least understood of organs. It controls all our sensory experiences but it is a black box. MRIs and CAT scans are blunt instruments that do little more than alert us to the fact that certain parts of the brain are associated with specific activities and sensory inputs. When something within that black box malfunctions, or works in unusual ways, people may have really strange internal experiences. Neuroscientists are often reduced to guesswork in understanding such cases. 

The gold standard in writing up clinical cases of misfiring brains for a lay readership was set by Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. Sacks had an extraordinary felicity with prose. He also worked as a neurologist for five decades and his day job yielded a rich ore of case studies. 
Ms Thomson has a background in neurology too. She's unabashedly inspired by Sacks and uses a similar format to cover nine individuals, with unusual brain functions that have led to unique, or near-unique, lived experiences. 

Obviously, there is a difference in the depth. Sacks was writing up case studies of patients he worked with over years (in one case, he was describing himself). Ms Thomson is an extremely meticulous and conscientious journalist. Her prose is much better than workman-like, and her exposition of the underlying science is very clear.  

She has done in-depth research into each case and met her subjects and their doctors. She carefully takes the reader through the scientific explanation of each of these conditions, insofar as any pucca explanations exist.  
  
It’s notable that only one of the nine subjects of this book qualifies as “mad” in the commonly accepted sense of the word. So, what we have here is a broad spectrum of strangeness. Some of the conditions are not harmful, just weird. Several of the subjects are high-performing individuals, despite their oddities. 

Most subjects are rational, aware that they are unusual in one respect and they have found ways to live normal lives. A couple have even made virtues out of necessity and entered professions in which their own peculiar perceptions are, arguably, helpful. In one case, the misfiring actively helped transform the subject’s life for the better. 

The madman is a psychotic, who sometimes believes that he is turning into a tiger, complete with the desire to attack and eat people. He can describe this “transformation” while it’s happening, in-between the growls and roars. The author witnesses the transformation in a psychiatric ward — indeed, her presence may have triggered it.    

There is a colour-blind Icelandic scientist, who sees auras around people, complete with colours that he can never see in real life. He’s a trifle embarrassed by this. But he also finds it useful because the colours tell him if he’s sexually attracted to somebody, or simply finds them boring. 

There is a deaf mathematics teacher, who must cope with hearing constant, repetitive, maddening musical jingles 24x7. She used to have perfect musical pitch so she’s even scored those phrases, and she can control and direct them to some extent. 

There is a petty, violent criminal who had a stroke that suddenly transformed him into a caring gentle, artistic, extremely loquacious individual who couldn’t hurt a fly. He now finds it difficult to connect with his earlier persona even though he remembers being a brawling yob. There is a doctor who is so empathetic that he feels the symptoms of his patients. It hasn’t driven him mad (at least not yet) but it does stress him out. 

There is a man who remembers every mundane detail of his own life, while having a normal memory in other respects. He can recall headlines and sports results from 40 years ago. One peculiarly bittersweet sidelight is that he can, at will, recall every interaction he’s ever had, with people who have died. He’s lived an entirely normal life and is quite successful. 

There is a woman whose spatial-locational sense is disrupted to the point where she is often lost within her own home. Right and left get flipped; she finds she’s travelling north when her body says she’s going south. She can sometimes “reset” her spatial sense by twirling through dance steps. Again, despite this disability she’s lived a normal life. 

There is also a man who spent several years believing that he was actually dead. He used to read meters for a water supply company. After a botched suicide attempt where he tried to electrocute himself in a bathtub, he lost all sense of being alive. He was genuinely puzzled that he could walk, talk, eat, read, and so on, while being convinced that he was dead. 

There is a woman who lost her sense of identity and became a “detached”, depersonalised observer of her physical reality while actively living it and holding down a demanding job. This “out of body” experience was accompanied by an astounding lack of emotion. 

In each case, Ms Thomson lays out the medical background and the current scientific understanding of the situation, as well as faithfully reporting the subject’s first-person lived experiences. This is a fascinating book that delves into brain under-function, synaesthesia, the underlying structure of hallucinations, and the nature of consciousness.  


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