A Beautiful Mess: Bizarre Neurological Disorders

“The brain is a monstrous, beautiful mess. Its billions of nerve cells — called neurons — lie in a tangled web that displays cognitive powers far exceeding any of the silicon machines we have built to mimic it.” — William F. Allman

Aside from outer space, the other frontier that man is struggling to understand, explore and map is the human brain. All of a sudden, neuroscience has begun to progress by leaps and bounds in the mapping of the human brain and it is conceivable that in our lifetimes, we will have enough information to recreate one. With each advance in knowledge we come one step closer to understanding the biggest mystery of life: ourselves.

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Source: Speigel, Adriaan van de; and Casseri, Giulio Cesare. De humani corporis fabrica libri decem. (Venice: Evangelista Deuchino, 1627).

Understanding how the brain functions and what exactly it does can tell us almost everything about ourselves, our actions and our beliefs. But not all brains function alike and even minor differences in brain function can lead to some bizarre and amazing results. The things that our brains can make us do and believe defy what most of us understand as reality.

1. The Cotard Delusion: The Cotard delusion is a neuropsychiatric disorder in which patients suffer the delusion that they are dead, rotting, or don’t exist at all. One such patient, who was injured in a motorcycle accident and then taken to South Africa, believed he had died of septicemia and gone to hell. He thought his mother was there as a spiritual guide to show him around. I can’t even imagine how it feels to imagine you don’t exist. It sends me into a paradox spiral of “but if you don’t exist, who is thinking about how you don’t ex-aaaaagh!”

2. Alice In Wonderland Syndrome: Alice in Wonderland syndrome encompasses a number of sensory glitches in which one perceives objects to be either much smaller or bigger than they really are, or distorted in other ways, and perceives the self to be much bigger or smaller relative to the objects than they truly are. It’s basically like being in hallucinogens ALL THE TIME. (Alternatively, it can be caused by hallucinogens). I just imagine some poor person trying so hard to get the drink in front of them and just missing it constantly. Or ducking into large doorways or trying to walk under tables.

3. Apotemnophilia: This is a fetish whereby people are erotically aroused by the idea of being or looking like an amputee. Yup. This is a person who gets off on the idea of chopping his or her own limbs off. According to a recent study, most such people most desire to have one leg cut off, just above the knee. So they not only entertain this disturbing desire, but have preferences as to the amputation they would most like to have.

4. Alien Hand, or Dr. Strangelove Syndrome: This one is pretty self-explanatory. Sufferers have a hand that seemingly takes on a mind of its own. Generally this signifies some disconnect between the brain hemispheres. Interestingly enough, people who suffer from this tend to attribute a separate “personality” to their alien hand. A personality that is often evil. They project wants and desires onto the hand itself, because they are not controlling it. For example if they want to eat something, but the hand will not pick up the fork, they decide the “hand does not want to eat.” This syndrome, while tragic for the sufferer provides oodles of content for neurological and philosophical study of consciousness, volition, and decision-making.

5. Foreign Accent Syndrome: For sufferers of this disorder, an injury to the head results in the patient suddenly taking on an accent foreign to their normal way of speaking. An American may start speaking with a Cockney dialect, a Norwegian can begin to sound German. It is even possible for a person to take on an accent they have never actually heard before. The most recent case took place last year, when a woman from Washington came back from a neck adjustment at the chiropractor with a Russian accent. She even made the same grammatical mistakes of a native Russian speaker.

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