Mind & Body

5 of the Most Amazing Cases in Neuroscience History

The human brain is amazing. It can memorize a deck of cards, use echolocation to get around, and learn to identify musical notes just by hearing them. But for every story of a brain performing at its best, there's an equally unbelievable story of a brain that just won't follow the rules. From the archives of psychology, here are five times human brains behaved in unbelievable ways.

The Man Who Remembered Everything

In the 1988 film "Rain Man," Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic savant with an extraordinary memory. That character was inspired by a real man: Kim Peek, a "megasavant" who was estimated to retain 98 percent of everything he ever learned. Although he was born with severe brain abnormalities — not autism, as Hoffman's character was — that made reasoning and physical coordination challenging, he had a superhuman ability to take in and retain information. He could read two pages of a book at once and remember everything he read so that by the time he died in 2009, he had read as many as 12,000 books. How? Experts believe it may have been because he was missing his corpus callosum, the nerve tissue that connects the brain's two hemispheres. Despite the fact that this made it difficult for Peek to brush his teeth or dress himself on his own, it may have led to a rewiring that helped each hemisphere gain other functions that it never would have if the two were connected.

The Woman Who Saw Dragons

Imagine if every face you saw morphed into the face of a dragon. That's what this woman had experienced for her entire life. "She could perceive and recognize actual faces, but after several minutes they turned black, grew long, pointy ears and a protruding snout, and displayed a reptiloid skin and huge eyes in bright yellow, green, blue, or red," write the authors of a 2014 Lancet paper about the phenomenon, which they called "prosopometamorphopsia." Even worse, she regularly experienced hallucinations of similar faces coming toward her from the walls, electric sockets, and computer screens. It wasn't until she was a teenager that she realized that most people don't see faces this way. At 52, after decades struggling with depression and an inability to keep a steady job, she sought help from a neurologist, who put her on an Alzheimer's drug that kept the symptoms at bay. At the time of the Lancet paper, she had kept the same job for the past three years.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

If this one sounds familiar, it's because it's the title for neurologist Oliver Sacks's famous compilation of clinical case studies. The titular tale is about a patient Sacks referred to as Dr. P, who had a condition known as visual agnosia. That meant that he could see just fine, and his other senses were intact as well, but he had a problem putting the details of what he was seeing into a coherent picture. When given an object to identify, he'd say things like "a continuous surface infolded on itself. It appears to have five outpouchings, if this is the word," to describe a glove, and "A convoluted red form with a linear green attachment," to describe a rose. And yes, he did mistake his wife for a hat: Sacks recounted a moment when Dr. P was getting up to leave and attempted to lift his wife's head off of her shoulders, believing that it was his hat. Luckily, his wife was used to such things.

The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine

In the 1870s, French-Canadian lumberjacks working in a forest in Northern Maine began to behave erratically. When they were startled, they'd jump, curse, yell, lash out, or even imitate the speech or actions of people around them. Sometimes, they'd mindlessly follow commands. All of it appeared to be involuntary, and only in response to a surprise or startle. To this day, no one is sure whether this condition was caused by problems in the nervous system or a psychological disorder, but these men were just some of the patients who have suffered from this "startle syndrome"; isolated populations throughout the world, including the "Ragin' Cajuns" of Louisiana and the latah of Indonesia, exhibit similar symptoms.

The Man With One Word

This patient of famed neurologist Paul Broca was named Louis Victor Leborgne, but most people just called him Tan. That's because he had a neurological condition that made him unable to speak, except to utter one word: "tan." It's not that he couldn't communicate — that one syllable came with plenty of expressive hand gestures, not to mention variations in pitch and inflection. He even appeared to understand everything that was said to him and responded as best he could. He was referred to Broca in April 1861 and died just a few days later, but the biopsy of his brain would change neuroscience forever. He had a lesion in the left frontal cortex — a region now known as Broca's area, the center of language function in the brain. Today, Leborgne's condition is known as Broca's aphasia.

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: Sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

There are many more neurological curiosities in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales" by Oliver Sacks. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer May 1, 2019

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.