By: Jocelyn Schwalm
What is it that sets us apart as people? Is it our core values, intentions, actions, beliefs? What if these things changed in the blink of an eye? Would you still be you, or would you be someone else inhabiting the same body?
It’s a hard concept to wrap our heads around—that our brain contains much more information than we can possibly comprehend through metacognition. We tend to think that all that exists within us is in our waking consciousness, ready to be accessed through our thought processes. However, this isn’t always the case. For some individuals who’ve experienced brain trauma, the question of who they are becomes much more complicated, indicating what we consider the “I” can be a fluid concept, much more plastic than we originally thought.
After having a stroke at the age of 34, Lotje Sodderland, the main character of the new documentary, My Beautiful Broken Brain, started to experience vivid colour vision out of her right eye. She felt as if she lost her self-identity as her world shifted. Sodderland could only recognize herself as a familiar stranger.
She compares the experience to a David Lynch film (known for their colourful and bizarre characteristics). She says that the vivid colours and distortions of his films share characteristics with her new life and fresh set of eyes. The lens through which she sees the world is vastly different from the reality she experienced prior to the stroke. The changes have forced her to adjust her self-image, as she is different than she was prior to the stroke. Described by friends and family as being articulate and well spoken before, she now experiences aphasia, the inability to formulate words.
Lotje Sodderland isn’t the only brain injury victim who’s experienced some sort of peculiar and remarkable ability after the experience of a brain injury, raising questions about one’s core capability.
Derek Amato, a man who slammed his head on the bottom of a concrete pool resulting in a severe concussion, was able to play the piano like a professional pianist weeks after the injury occurred. While never having had a lesson in his life, he described the need to play the piano as an incessant urge, and says he felt immediate relief upon sitting down to play.
This type of rare syndrome stemming from brain injury is called “Acquired savant” skills. It vastly changes the way the patient functions prior to the brain trauma. Acquired savants have very similar traits to savants with autism. These individuals will often have low language skills and exceedingly high creative abilities. Scientists say that this is not the result of a random talent appearing in the brain after injury but more so the uncovering of a latent ability. For the brain to work properly, certain parts in the right hemisphere have to be shut off while others in the left hemisphere are turned on (and vice versa). When a brain injury occurs, this process is scrambled. This allows for the reconnecting of passages in the brain that were previously not connected to be accessed by the individual, leaving us to ponder the question of what truly makes us unique, if we’re never fully aware of our capacities.
It seems that even our voice isn’t a stable part of our identity, as evidenced by Foreign Accent Syndrome. FAS is a rare syndrome in which brain damage changes the patient’s accent. A woman named Julie Matthias experienced just that after falling victim to severe head trauma after being in a car accident. Being a UK-born woman, she had a British accent all her life, but after the car accident her accent sounded more like a natural French accent, and at some points even a Chinese accent. Researchers say that the perceived accent is not actually an accent, but it is instead a change of emphasis on different parts of a word. This causes the semblance of an accent, but it is merely damage to parts of the brain that make up language acquisition.
Matthias says that she felt as if she couldn’t recognize herself. She saw the same face, but when she spoke, she experienced a dissociation in which she couldn’t help but perceive this new voice as that of someone she didn’t know.
In epileptic patients, it used to be common practice for doctors to split up the right and left hemisphere of the brain when too much electricity was running through the two, resulting in uncontrollable seizures. When this happened, the patient was able to practice dexterity after the surgery, allowing them access to a part of their brain they had never consciously exercised before. The cause of this is actually the result of two brains working separately when split up. The right brain is unable to speak, but makes many decisions subconsciously for us, which often goes unnoticed by those who have normal, connected brains.
This seems to turn into an issue when the brain is split, as the right brain is still participating in decisions, but the left brain is unaware, and therefore will do things subconsciously without the conscious brain being aware of what is actually going on, leading the left brain to verbally make excuses for the actions of the right brain. If so many of our decisions are being made subconsciously, and our conscious brain is just making excuses, then what are our unfiltered thoughts?
The concept of knowing our true identity is in and of itself somewhat of a malleable concept and may change from moment to moment. However, it is worth taking a minute to ponder what it is that makes us us. If so much of our identity can be subject to change, there must be some core aspect that differentiates us as individuals.