Memory, the Spirit in Man, and Hemispherectomies

What would happen to your memories or personality if half of your brain were surgically removed? Don't be so sure...
What would happen to your memories or personality if half of your brain were surgically removed? Don’t be so sure… (Image credit: Wikipedia)

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…

15 thoughts on “Memory, the Spirit in Man, and Hemispherectomies

  1. CRB

    Interesting! Someone smarter than me would have to sort out this and the fact that traumatic brain injury patients often experience memory loss and personality change. Is the same part of both sides of the brain affected, leaving no back up to interface with the spirit of man??? We heard a fabulous sermon at the Feast about the spirit of man and a infinitesimally small and consistent amount of weight loss noted by scientists when people die. The minister’s name, if you want to ask him about his studies rhymes with s binnail. Nothing like being discrete with names 😉

  2. Thanks, CRB, and I should stress that I am not saying that we can sustain a great deal of brain damage and remain unaffected in personality or memory. Actually, that is not the norm as I understand it. We do believe that the brain is a very necessary part of the human mind. It simply is not the only part. And the possible (though not sure) implications of successful hemispherectomies fascinates me, as do the questions about memory and personality that such procedures inspire.

    As for the idea that there is a small amount of weight loss at death, as I understand it that is an unproven conjecture that has not been clinically demonstrated, Dr. Duncan McDougall’s zealous efforts in the early 20th century notwithstanding, so I am skeptical. Looks like I have something to ask “s binnail” about. 🙂

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. This is way beyond my ken to understand. But I have heard of the scientific studies that claim an infinitesimal weight loss when people die. There are those who believe the immortal soul lie who assert that that this alleged loss of weight occurs when the fictional soul leaves the body when people die. Those of who know the truth understand that there is a spirit in man and that returns to Him who gave it when we die. We know that the spirit in man is not the immortal soul. However what is most important is that we know and understand the basic essential truths and that we treat unproved theories with a proper degree of skepticism – a grain of salt.

  4. 13brian

    I wonder if some of the memory is stored in the heart? The Bible also speaks of the heart similarly, there are personality changes and memories that are transferred with heart transplant patients as well as in blood transfusions. It will be most interesting to find out all of these intricacies, eventually- when we can query the Creator directly.

  5. Let’s run with the idea that there is such a loss of weight. Uh, what happens when people die? They “breathe their last”. The “breath of life” departs; the (mortal) soul thereby perishes. Air is not weightless. Spirit is weightless. It can’t be affected either by gravity or by the curvature of space-time. Even if the spirit in man were an “immortal soul”, still it would be weightless.

    There are times when the child’s heart in me wants to scream, “Is there a LOGICIAN in the house?!” and this is one of them. How is it that people don’t think such things through? If I, with the thirty-six-place abacus in the back of my head attempting to do logical algorithms, 😀 can do this, then people with supercomputers in their brains by comparison (and there are plenty of them) should be able to do so.

    Meanwhile, Mr. Smith, I could point you to an LCG member (you’ve met and talked with him – he used to work at the University of Houston’s Dept. of Physics and is now retired) who’s had some interesting things happen to his brain and yet while his memory has had equally interesting things happen to it, his personality has remained unchanged.

    For me it is the functional differentiation between the Jungian Ego and the Jungian Self with its cognitive processes which is the scientific basis for denying materialism. How can a material Self simply “project” an Ego, an independent point of view which both receives information from the brain and gives information back? How can that Ego, if material, ask existential questions and have Howard Gardner’s “existential intelligence”? Can mere chemicals and electrochemical reactions do such things? Can it contemplate the existence of God, let alone perceive a personal relationship with Him? I think not.

  6. Howdy, Mr. Wheeler. I will give Dr. Dougall some credit — he claims that he did try, at least, to control for other possible weight loss sources, including breath. His study may not be conclusive and the work may have been faulty, but he did think things through, and it was conducted with careful consideration.

  7. Teresa

    You were probably alluding to this in your comment, but the rats in the experiments would only have animal life and not the spirit in man, so perhaps suggesting that there is some memory storage in a brain, but as the hemispherectomies suggest, perhaps not the bulk of the storage that we find in humans. It makes one wonder whether there is a specific part of the brain that interacts with the spirit. In connection with memory storage, I’ve been told that the average chicken will remember something that is not repeated for about 3 days…..perhaps their brains have a short term temporary memory storage bin. 🙂

  8. Definitely, and thanks, Teresa. Though the Bible does mention some sort of spirit in animals (Ecc. 3:21), though it is not preserved by God like the spirit of man is. Perhaps it is related to their memory in some way, also. I do believe the brain is designed to interact with the spirit man is given, and it would be neat if it were some particular structure. As for the chicken trivia, I guess that means that I don’t have to worry about sharing any of my computer passwords with a chicken who wants to borrow my computer. 🙂

  9. Steve

    Your use of the term “accessing mechanism” is a good one. Or you could call it interface. The way I learned it, the human brain receives knowledge from the five physical senses (and collates it). That is not the same thing as the human spirit, however. You don’t see too many chickens or cows composing music and doing math equations.

    Certainly, the physical brain is very much involved in the development of personality. Depending upon the circumstances in which one grew up. Violent criminals serving prison sentences have a history of child abuse, for example. Even dogs and horses have individual personalities. But that’s not the same thing.

    The body doesn’t lose weight when the spirit leaves the body. That implies the human spirit is nothing more than a material substance. I don’t believe that at all.

    And thanks for warming up some old neurons for me….

  10. Bryan

    Fascinating post and discussion. That brain damaged individuals show less altered personality and memory than what one might assume has some interesting implications for sentience and memory being stored in a non-physical component. I think this has been a line of reasoning among mind/body dualists like Jeffrey Schwartz, MD.

    However, Jeffrey Schwartz just so happens to be one of the leading experts on the other topic you brought up–neuroplasticity. I find his definition more interesting than that of Norman Doidge’s (author of “The Mind and the Brain”). [EDIT: See comment, below. I think Schwartz wrote “The Mind and the Brain”–WGS] Doidge would indeed say that neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to rewire itself. Dr. Schwartz would say that neuroplasticity is the ability of the MIND to rewire the brain. He is a legitimate research scientist that believes there is evidence of a non-physical component to man’s consciousness and memory.

    I always believed that science would never legitimately measure the non-physical component God created in man. Logically, one cannot measure spirit in a physical measuring cup, see it in a microscope, or break down its chemical composition in a spectrometer. However, though we cannot see wind, we can see its effects on say trees swaying in the breeze. Neuroscientists like Schwartz I believe are beginning to see the effects of spirit on matter.

    So taking Dr. Schwarts’s definition to its speculative end: free-will, changes in the brain, and memory would all be products of the non-physical part of man (ie spirit of man, etc). Much of human consciousness possibly being the breath of God on physical matter.

    Brings the spirit world eerily close to our everyday existence!

  11. Howdy, Bryan, and that book has been on my “get this book” list for a long time! I got a copy of Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself for myself after I gave you back your copy, and I do want a copy of Schwartz’s The Mind and the Brain. He wrote that with Sharon Begley, and it was her column on such topics in the Wall Street Journal that first introduced me to the concept of “downward causation” (which I talk about here. I saw in Doidge’s book that he, indeed, sees it as the brain rewiring itself, yet Begley’s article talks about the growing evidence that there seems to be mind-to-brain action going on and not simply brain-to-brain. Now I’ll have to move that title to my “really, really do get this book” list. 🙂

  12. Sam. Karukk. G.

    I just saw this post, it is a little old for me to post into it, but the subject beckons me… for I too have sought for information on this subject.
    Just a quick observation, I noticed that people as they get older, their memories seem to be as correct and to the point as when they were younger, at least the memories that are in tact. Well the problem that I have with that is the body ages and slows down, the brain grows old and slows down,(i see that access of info might be slow) but why is the accuracy of the info not affected. It is as if even if you were 100 yrs old, your memories can still be correct but your foot or hands even though they still work, they will not work correctly (or accurately). Memories remembered through an old brain that has very old neurons can be perfect while what ever an old body tries to do is not perfect. Seems to me that memories may not suffer the same consequence for going through the same set of neurons. Then having seen that, where do memories come from? This observation makes me think that its origin must be from outside of matter that does not age or have any enthropy involved with it.

  13. Shkumbin Halabaku

    can you give me the name of the magazine that you have published thank you i’m from italy

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