The most recent article I submitted for the Tomorrow’s World magazine is about the brain, and researching the topic was a real pleasure. What an amazing creation! There is a reason that “mind/brain” posts show up on my personal blog from time to time–I find the topic utterly fascinating, and I always wish I had more time to dive into it and swim around for much longer than I normally can before other areas of life require me to get out of the pool.
In particular, while writing this most recent article I came across tales of Rasmussen’s syndrome, a terrible condition in which the victim–generally a child–experienced swelling in and destruction of one hemisphere of their brain, causing debilitating seizures. Remarkably, one means of treating the condition is the complete removal of one half of the brain–an entire hemisphere. The procedure is called, appropriately enough, a hemispherectomy. The damaged hemisphere, right or left, is completely removed, leaving only the unaffected half. Johns Hopkins is known for its expertise in the procedure, as is the currently-popular Dr. Ben Carson. [Scientific American has a brief article on hemispherectomies here, and Wikipedia’s entry on the matter is not bad.]
While it sounds as though such a procedure might turn a person into a permanently brain-damaged individual with little hope for a normal life, the opposite is true. While there is often some paralysis associated with the side of the body controlled by that hemisphere (in the right side if the left hemisphere is removed, and vice versa), the result is generally a ceasing of the seizures and the retention of the individual’s personality, sense of humor, and memories. And, for children, the neuroplasticity of the brain–stronger in the young than us oldies–means that the remaining portion of the brain can often rewire itself learn to take over the functions that the removed portion had controlled. This last fact is what I focused on for the article, but I readily admit that it is not the fact that fascinated me the most. Rather, my mind keeps returning to the observation that removal of half of the individual’s brain does not affect their personality or their sense of humor and does not remove their memories.
Wow. Really, every time I pause to ponder the thought, I’m hit with a “wow” moment.
It is tempting to make the leap of concluding that this is evidence that it is the spirit in man in which memories truly reside, thus removing half of the brain does not remove the memories. Tempting, tempting, tempting. After all, I believe in the truth of what Paul is implying when he rhetorically asks, “For what man knows the things of a man except for the spirit of the man which is in him?” (1 Cor. 2:11) — the spirit given to us is part and parcel of who we are, one of the two components, spirit and brain, of the human mind. So, seeing memories persist after half of the brain is removed? Tempting, tempting, tempting.
But, drawing hasty conclusions is a dangerous habit. And there may be material explanations. (Though they wouldn’t change the truth of what Paul said, mind you.) For instance, perhaps the hemispheres’ neurons work redundantly, with each backing up the other when it comes to memory, though I have seen nothing published to suggest this. Actually, I have seen the opposite, such as recent research with rats (of course it’s rats–it’s always rats) demonstrating that it may be possible to erase a memory by making a neuron-level alteration in one location. Or, perhaps it is related to the fact that hemispherectomy patients are young and their memories are still within the time range (maybe 12 years from what I have read) in which memory recall is still dominated by the hippocampus–although I believe that half of the hippocampus is also removed in a hemispherectomy (the only structures unaffected, as I understand the procedure, are the thalamus, brain stem, and basal ganglia), and, regardless, there are also successful adult hemispherectomies, which would certainly involve long-term memory stored in the cerebral cortex, not in the hippocampus. Regardless of any of these possibilities, neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to adapt and change itself, doesn’t explain it. How can the brain adapt to instantly “recreate” memories and elements of personality that have been physically removed? How would it know what to recreate? It would be like using half of a broken digital DVD to somehow recreate the entire movie.
I just don’t see a purely materialist explanation for the retention of personality and memory after hemispherectomy based on all I have read, though I am open to such an explanation should it be discovered. The physical brain is undoubtedly a vital part of the human mind, and that it has a role in taking in, processing, retaining, and recalling memory is undeniable. Yet, is it possible that the brain is simply an accessing mechanism? That neuronal patterns represent access codes to memories that exist outside the brain–perhaps in the human spirit–and that in the case of hemispherectomies the remaining hemisphere is able to continue to access an untouched, immaterial reserve of those memories? Somehow, the brain is “wet wired” to interface with the spirit — that much seems sure. Are we seeing clues about the nature of that interface in such procedures?
It would be foolish to conclude anything strongly based on this level of knowledge (really, this level of ignorance) concerning the interaction of the brain and the spirit. Still: tempting, tempting, tempting. And it truly is remarkable that while many materialists strive to convince us that the physical organ that is our brain is “all there is” to the human mind and personality–that, in essence, you are your brain–fully half of that brain can be physically removed while leaving the things that make you you untouched. Methinks they are guessing. Or, perhaps, engaging in wishful thinking.
Regardless, I’m glad that God has allowed me to have both my hemispheres this long. Something tells me that I need all the help I can get…