Day 39: Brains and Souls

by ashleighpenrod

It’s a dream of mine to meet Oliver Sacks. One day this year, I will write a blog about him as a “person you should know” but I have so much to say, I’m not quite sure where to begin.

For now, suffice it to say that he is a physician and neurologist who has collected incredible stories from people with neurological disorders and anomalies. I just started reading Sacks’ most recent book, Hallucinations, a series of stories about others’ and his own mind-altering experiences. It’s fascinating so far.

Yesterday, Sacks tweeted about an article written by Daniel Levitin, a cognitive neuroscientist and writer who is also on my list of people to know. (Twitter is so great.)

The article, “Amnesia and the Self That Remains When Memory Is Lost,” is about Levitin’s experience reconnecting with one of his former Stanford psychology classmates—Tom, a man who has an inoperable brain tumor in his temporal lobe. Temporal lobe tumors make long-term memories irretrievable. They do not typically affect a person’s general demeanor, but they block access to much of the fabric of that person’s life. The tumor carrier retains his/her intelligence, but basically has no prior history from which to contextualize and examine his/her current experiences.

Temporal Lobe

Levitin writes about going to see Tom, who was an acquaintance but not necessarily a friend. Tom had no recollection of his history with Levitin but was interested in hearing about how they knew each other and what they had each accomplished. What I found most touching about the article was Levitin’s final reflection: “When I saw Tom, something fundamentally Tom was still there. Some of us call it personality, or essence. Some call it the “soul.” Whatever it is, the tumor that took Tom’s memory had not touched it.”

It immediately brought me back to Irish philosopher John O’Donohue’s reflection on Meister Eckhart’s examination of the soul (yes, this is a winding—but connected—road). “…There is a place within the soul that neither time, nor space, nor flesh, nor no created thing can touch.”

Perhaps brain tumors and Alzheimer’s and traumatic injuries can’t touch that quiet place, either. Even when our neurological systems degrade and the people, places and things in our lives don’t mean anything to us anymore, something vital and enduring remains.