Wednesday, April 21, 2010

More Evidence That It’s “All in the Brain”?

The media today reports about an English woman who was treated for severe migraine in hospital, and woke up speaking with a Chinese accent.

Source: Migraine left woman with Chinese accent

The original report in the UK Mirror says:

Sarah, 35, has lived in Devon since she was a toddler but now sounds as if she is from the Far East.
She said yesterday: “I have never been to China. It is very frustrating and I just want my own voice back but I don’t know if I ever will.
“I moved to Plymouth aged 18 months so I have always spoken like a local. But when I had my attack last month an ambulance crew told me that I sounded Chinese.

“Since then I’ve had friends hang up on me as they think I’m a hoax caller. I speak in a much higher tone, my voice is all squeaky. I’m having speech therapy but don’t know if the Chinese accent will ever go away.

Foreign Accent Syndrome is a rare condition diagnosed in only about sixty people between 1941-2009. Another report in the Telegraph UK tells about a Croatian girl who fell into a coma and woke up speaking fluent German, and unable to speak her native Croatian.

Doctors at Split's KB Hospital claim that the case is so unusual, various experts have examined the girl as they try to find out what triggered the change.

Hospital director Dujomir Marasovic said: "You never know when recovering from such a trauma how the brain will react. Obviously we have some theories although at the moment we are limited in what we can say because we have to respect the privacy of the patient."

Psychiatric expert Dr Mijo Milas added: "In earlier times this would have been referred to as a miracle, we prefer to think that there must be a logical explanation – its just that we haven't found it yet.

"There are references to cases where people who have been seriously ill and perhaps in a coma have woken up being able to speak other languages – sometimes even the Biblical languages such as that spoken in old Babylon or Egypt – at the moment though any speculation would remain just that – speculation – so it's better to continue tests until we actually know something."

A reader comment on this article was interesting, though I naturally can’t verify the truth or accuracy of it:

My wife (we are french) had a brain stroke 4 years ago. When she "woke up" 2 days later she couldn't speak french but started to speak a "bumpy" english. It lasted over three weeks.
Amazing, isn't it?

I’m extremely sceptical of “outside theories”, that is, the idea that phenomena like these arise outside the brain, and I suppose in a way it goes back to Descartes “mind-body problem”. Is there a ghost in the machine? In a not entirely unrelated article, E.O Wilson writes:

I am an empiricist. On religion I lean toward deism, but consider its proof largely a problem in astrophysics. The existence of a God who created the universe (as envisioned by deism) is possible, and the question may eventually be settled, perhaps by forms of material evidence not yet imagined. Or the matter may be forever beyond human reach. In contrast, and of far greater importance to humanity, the idea of a biological God, one who directs organic evolution and intervenes in human affairs (as envisioned by theism), is increasingly contravened by biology and the brain sciences.

The same evidence, I believe, favors a purely material origin of ethics, and it meets the criterion of consilience: causal explanations of brain activity and evolution, while imperfect, already cover most facts known about behavior we term "moral." Although this conception is relativistic (in other words, dependent on personal viewpoint), it can, if evolved carefully, lead more directly and safely to stable moral codes than can transcendentalism, which is also, when one thinks about it, ultimately relativistic.

Of course, lest I forget, I may be wrong.

Source: The Biological Basis of Morality (The Atlantic, online)

That could be the subject of another post, but in essence I agree with Wilson. We still live in a superstitious age where many accept at face value phenomena like “speaking in tongues” and mysterious “spiritual forces” that supposedly act upon us outside the brain. I suppose it’s a compelling idea for many that “God” really controls our individual lives (crossing t’s, dotting I’s, and all that), even though we have often ended up hating or killing one another, driven by this idea that “God is okay with what we do, think", etc. And “God” will tell one “prophet” something, and another “prophet” something entirely contradictory.

Are we yet prepared to accept the possibility that a psychotic serial killer might simply have different brain functions to what is considered “normal”, and is not actually under “demonic possession”? How will the judicial system deal with this when it finally and seriously considers applied science in future, in regard to morality and ethics? One thing I am certain of is that we’re not going to find satisfactory answers by consulting one, two, three, or four thousand year old “holy books”. I am, somewhat like Wilson, not averse to the idea of deism, but if such a God exists, I think it’s necessary to reiterate Darwin’s dictum that trying to discover this God (or ultimate truth) is like a dog trying to contemplate the mind of Newton. In outright candour, I suppose I might as well consider myself atheist in that regard. I am not, for one minute, under the serious delusion that the “God idea” is going to go away, but I’m becoming more and more convinced that it is, indeed, all in the brain. There is no “ghost in the machine”, and what you see is what you get. In a post to follow this one, I’ll give one example of how the “God idea” can not only at times be silly, self-serving, arrogant and fatuous, but downright dangerous.

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