Bumming around my parents’ house, I ended up flipping through a copy of Discover magazine and stumbled across an article on spatial neglect:

“In 1941, neurologists Andrew Paterson and O. L. Zangwill, working in Edinburgh, Scotland, published an account of a 34-year-old patient who had been hit in the head with a mortar fragment. The injury wiped out his sense of the left half of his world. Paterson and Zangwill described how the man ‘consistently failed to appreciate doors and turnings on his left-hand side even when he was aware of their presence.’ He also ‘neglected the left-hand side of a picture or the left-hand page of a book despite the fact that his attention was constantly being drawn to the oversight.’ The patient could play checkers but ignored the pieces on the left side of the board. ‘And when his attention was drawn to the pieces on this side,’ the doctors wrote, ‘he recognized them but immediately thereafter forgot them.'” (1)

The writer in me loves this idea; if there are parts of our brain that are responsible for simply noticing things around us, then how do we know that there aren’t obvious things that are simply not triggering those parts? We could all be running around in a world where there are places like the Leaky Cauldron from Harry Potter that all or most of us just don’t see.  How would we ever know?

Our brains are so good at giving us a whole picture the we often forget  it’s assembling pieces together that don’t exactly fit. Our perceptions of the world come with such conviction, but the science of the brain seldom validates this. When I studied learning and memory in undergrad we talked about how our minds eye will recreate a complete scene, but details–the color of a car, the position of a cup–will be rearranged without our knowledge. We will recall a scene as though it were recorded by a camera and never be the wiser to the flaws created by the assembly process. Even just seeing the world in real time is a compromise between brain and eye; we don’t notice the blind spot in our vision or register how often our eyes flick away from our main focus.

To me the brain is one part of anatomy that still holds so much mystery, not only because we don’t fully understand how it works, but because every new discovery has the potential to utterly change our perception of what it is to be human and to be alive.

(1) Zimmer, Carl. “The Brain.” Discover; Science, Technology and the Future. September 2010

Advertisements