The human brain is a truly remarkable thing: far more complex than any computer, filled with layer upon layer of pattern-matching algorithms that give us all our excellent sense of intuition, and with none of the inconvenient cooling or power requirements of the traditional silicon-and-gold chips. It is what gives us our ability to wonder, to imagine, to know. Yet, despite its undisputable importance, we know very little about it, and the irony is not lost on us.
Consider the now-infamous legal case of Kenneth Parks. Mr Parks’ life story was a rather sordid tale: addicted to gambling, he embezzled funds from his job to keep himself financially afloat. Eventually, he was caught, and consequently fired from his job. He hid his addiction from his own family, and found himself sinking into a deep depression. On the morning of the 24th of May, 1987, he drove to the residence of his mother-in-law and brutally beat her to death. He proceeded to make his way to a police station, still covered in blood, and turned himself in without a second’s thought. The merciless killing of his own flesh and blood left the nation shocked, but when confronted in a court of law, he gave a controversial and stunning defence: he claimed that he slept through the events.
The defense seems pathetically flimsy, at first: nothing but a paper-thin excuse from a man who was clearly pushed past his limit. However, upon further inspection, it became evident there was more to the story. Parks, despite his tumultuous personal life, had always had a healthy relationship with his in-laws. Parks and his family had a long history of sleep-related problems: talking in their sleep, nightmares, and sleepwalking. Parks himself was known to be a parasomniac – that is to say, diagnosed with sleep disorders – and readings of his brain using an EEG (a device to read electrical signals within the organ) showed that he displayed certain strange and anomalous signs. The court unanimously acquitted Parks after the experts’ testimony, concluding that he really had not been acting of his own free will that day.
The implications of this case are immense. Parks wasn’t acting of his own accord that day; so what precisely was in control of his actions? He certainly had no conscious control over what occured, and yet it’s clear the murder was not commited thoughtlessly. Parks had to drive some 20 miles to his in-laws’ home before he did the deed, and when he turned himself into the police he even spoke directly to them. Not only was he acting with intelligence, what he said to the officers he met was a direct comment on his actions – he claimed, “I think I have just killed two people.” It seems that some part of his unconscious mind was behind the wheel, so to speak, when he commited his crime, and yet he acted with careful thought and even showed a degree of self awareness. It is commonly believed that intelligence and consciousness spring from the same part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, and yet the two traits appear to have decoupled here, in contradiction of much of what we know. Tragic though the tale of Mr. Parks’ somnambulism may be, it provides us with a fascinating look into the inner workings of the human brain and reminds of just how much we still do not know.
Though we understand staggeringly little about the precise mechanisms that allow the brain to function, we can sometimes turn them to our advantage nonetheless. Epilepsy is a disorder that causes storms of electrical activity in the brain, causing a variety of effects including sensory distortion and fits of violent movement. Often, medication is an effective treatment, stopping seizures in half of the patients, whilst reducing their effects in the other half. However, if medication is ineffective and the seizures are severe enough, a more radical procedure may be used: hemispherectomy. This procedure calls for the removal or disconnection of one hemisphere of the brain. The actual physical removal of a hemisphere is considered archaic in the modern day, and it is the preference of most surgeons to sever the connection between the hemispheres, so as to avoid complications. Despite the rather grim sound of things, this is a highly effective procedure, causing seizures to cease in 85 to 90 percent of patients.
What is truly noteworthy about the procedure however, is that it has almost no side effects whatsoever. Patients report no change in personality, loss of memory or alteration to mannerisms, despite the loss of almost half the mass of the brain. This is intriguing, implying a vast degree of redundancy in the brain’s structure, as well as an exceptional amount of flexibility. To once again draw an analogy to the modern computers, there isn’t a single device that would be able to remain even remotely functional if you were to remove half the components on their motherboard. This is yet another area where the endless ministrations of natural selection far outstrip anything we can design. This alone is remarkable, but this isn’t the full story.
In fact, in some cases the surgery is followed not only by a return to normal function, but by an actual improvement in cognitive development. Paradoxically, removing almost half of the brain’s tissue actually makes it more efficient. It’s clear that many of our models of how the brain functions are simplistic at best: assigning individual areas of the brain to certain functions seems like a naive view in light of these facts. It’s clear that the brain is far more capable of adaptation and self-reconfiguration than we realise, and that despite the lifetimes of study dedicated to understanding this store of the human experience, we still have a long way to go.
Supreme Court of Canada(1992) “R. v. Parks” https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/907/index.do
Epilepsy Foundation “Effectiveness of Treatment” https://epilepsychicago.org/epilepsy/treatment/effectiveness-of-treatment/
H Blume(2004) “Hemispherectomy” https://www.epilepsy.com/learn/professionals/diagnosis-treatment/surgery/hemispherectomy
Charles Choi(2007) “Strange but True: When Half a Brain Is Better than a Whole One.” Scientific American.