Mental disorders are a fascinating topic that puzzle even the most intelligent neuroscientists. Over the past few years I have tried to stay informed about the current understanding of this subject by participating in the local brain bee and reading the works of famous neurologists and essayists. Last year I read the Tell Tale Brain by V.S. Ramachandran. This book included several interesting case studies and hypothesis about human reactions and functions. One hypothesis I remember particularly well was about smiling. According to Ramachandran’s research, primates used to bare their teeth at any stranger to show they were ‘tough’ and capable of defending their territory and loved ones. If a friend came by, however, the primate would try to cover their teeth and this is what we know as smiling today.
Recently I have been reading Oliver Sacks’ work; Hallucinations has particularly fascinated me. A famous neurologist and essayist, many critics accuse him of blurring the lines between science and writing. Arthur Snapiro’s went so far as to say that Sacks is “a much better writer than he is a clinician”. What I enjoy about Hallucinations is the way Sacks weaves various stories in a narrative, informing the reader of various neurological disorders while keeping the reader engaged. As I went from chapter to chapter, I learned about visual, phantosmia (smell), auditory, seizure, drug-induced, migraine, and tactile (physical contact) hallucinations, and in learning the neuroscience behind these, I have traveled in the brain. The opening case study is about a blind woman having vivid hallucinations. Her visual sensory deprivation resulted in a common response known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome. The numerous case studies covered in Sacks’ books illustrate that hallucinations can occur for anyone, whether you are musician going deaf or a teenager having a migraine aura.
Following this reading, I asked my parents if they had ever experienced hallucinations. Though my mom did not realize it at the time, she had hallucinations when anesthetized during her c section. The geometrical patterns she saw lasted for over a month, spontaneously appearing and giving her unexplainable night terrors. The hallucinations eventually subsided and her doctor suggested she only got localized anesthesia going forward.
If you too are intrigued by neurological abnormalities, I would suggest reading the works of Oliver Sacks or V.S. Ramachandran. Aside from hallucinations, you can learn about interesting cases where individuals are unable to recognize faces, depth perception vanishes, spoken language is jumbled, etc. Take a trip inside the brain!