Sunday, September 11, 2016


Herb doesn't exist.  He is an invented clinical case:

Herb was a guy who was frustrating to his friends because he would flip back and forth — be all in favor, then opposed.  One day he would say that singing was the most transcendent force on the planet and that if it weren’t for singing, he wouldn’t want to live, that singing saved him.  Then he would announce that he hated singing!  That he would never sing again.  Not to pressure him to sing.


We knew that in childhood and adolescence his father had beaten him mercilessly and with no concern for the consequences.  It appeared that one of the consequences was periods of dissociation, a brain connectome pattern that takes a person in extreme and inescapable  agony (mental or emotional as much as physical) right out of reality into another consciousness.  Some said it was like the ghostly Sand Hills that Blackfeet described as the ground of death — gray, vast, repetitious.  We finally got Herb to admit that maybe that was related, but he always insisted his experience was real and somehow meaningful, maybe about safety and maybe about sacred, where the shaman went in a trance.

Dissociation, we read, is related to split personalities and paranoid schizophrenia, other variations of brain organization.  But Herb got mad when we suggested split personalities.  He said there was only one of him.   And it wasn’t paranoia if they’re really after you.

Then one of us who is a big TED talks fan, watched this episode about brain damage research, prompted by syndromes affecting football players who ram their heads together.  The major insight is that the REAL damage happens deep in the brain, not where there is an obvious crack in the skull at the surface. 

A related insight is that a blow to the side of the head (aside from damaging vital small structures like the hippocampus over each ear, also does damage at the bottom of the fissure between the two brain halves, which are connected by the corpus callosum.  People have been fascinated by the fact that separating the two brain hemispheres by cutting the corpus callosum can create two identities with different styles, one knowing names and what things do and the other one more imaginative, inventing stories.  

The most fascinating experiments are when one side of the head and eye are simply separated by a partition between.  If one half is shown a picture, it identifies it, but the other might not be able to name it but imply by spinning a little story that it DID know.

fMRI type research has shown that repeated blows as in football or boxing can result in the corpus callosum being very much thinned and the ventricles around it, which are spaces, enlarging a lot.  That is, the neurons around the base of this fissure crossed by the corpus callosum have disappeared and the connection itself is much thinner.  This means that the connection between the two halves is reduced, and bad things are happening to the contiguous tissues.

Two of my family members had concussions to the front of their heads, to their foreheads.  Both of them were changed to the point of changing their personalities, but mostly in a unified and subtle way.  That is, the prefrontal cortex contains things like judgement and decision-making.  A steering wheel sort of deficit.  But the deep tissue damage of side-to-side blows takes away awareness, consciousness-type functions.

What we wondered was whether Herb — who notably has a taste for high society, elegance and the principles of cosmic physics, but other times can crave degradation, danger, and transgression — might have loose wiring that throws him from one hemisphere to the other — and therefore one personality or skill set —and another.

It would be easy to attribute this to psych stuff — after all, one side of his genetic family was brilliant and brainy while the other side survived mostly by sheer tenacity and stamina.  If his thinking framework were more like one side than the other at the particular time, that would make a difference in what he did and how he justified it.

Best of all, if the two sides of brain or psyche could be reconciled and — operating together — the results would be spectacular.  He was not a guy who would accept ordinary therapy — some nice lady gently and insidiously using Freudian principles — so what would work?  Could we put a magnetic headset on him that would make him optimistic enough to burst into song?  They say those waves can create spiritual visions.

One among us recommended high-end S and M, that would reach the areas that his father had evidently split and fused with abuse.  Others said those rituals were too extreme and the humanities of all sorts — art, music, dance, story — could do the job without risking physical damage.  

We went Wiki-diving and learned a lot of neat new words: splenum, genu, eutherian, rostrum, truncus, tapetum.  There was the inevitable sex part:  . . . "advanced analytical techniques of computational neuroanatomy developed in the 1990s showed that sex differences were clear but confined to certain parts of the corpus callosum, and that they correlated with cognitive performance in certain tests. One recent study using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) found that the midsagittal corpus callosum cross-sectional area is, after controlling brain size, on average, proportionately larger in females."  That was irrelevant since Herb was definitely male.

There are a lot of things with names — syndromes, symptoms, dysfunctions — that relate to the corpus callosum.  It can fail to form in gestation, be badly formed, or be only partially there, or be cut, all without fatal results — just loose wiring sorts of probs.  Maybe progressive.  One football wife said that first they lose the car keys, then they lose the car, then they can’t remember where they’re going while they’re still sitting in the driveway.  That can get dangerous.  Seizures are the most common problem: electrical storms when the orderly pulsing of thought gets snarled.  

It’s only a notion that ODD might be related to ACC — erratic behavior caused by failure to properly manage consciousness because of forceful damage — but it seems logical.  And if the slamming of heads by adults — more likely to the side of the head than the front, though Mark Harmon on NCIS smacks the backs of heads (bad screenwriters!)— then the corpus callosum could easily be torn or bruised.  If this is a family or cultural practise, then it could be passed from one generation to another in an imitation of inheritance.  

Herb refused to talk about his family. but listening carefully and doing a little genealogy we heard about alcoholism, obsessions, paranoia, and schitzy thinking.  Also, high achievers and advanced degrees, but no artists.  What if a corpus callosum were exceptionally large/thick — would the result be high intelligence?  Maybe, undamaged, it could be an advantage, but hard to handle.

One afternoon, clustered in the generous corner booth of our fav waffle house, we realized that our Herb project had made us ourselves into a “corpus callosum,” a tough bunch!  About that time, Herb walked in and he had a project for us.  It was kids.  And he never changed his mind.

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