A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Instrumentality of the Brain

Now and then peculiar stories come to light.  A friend of mine some years ago had been scheduled for bypass surgery, but when he went into the hospital, they found, mirabile dictu, that new arteries had grown creating a natural bypass!  A strange thing, but not (he told me) as uncommon as you might think.  Though it is probably not an eventuality upon you would want to rely.

Today's tale is of a boy who was born without half his brain.
When Chase Britton was 1 year old, doctors did an MRI, expecting to find he had a mild case of cerebral palsy. Instead, they discovered he was completely missing his cerebellum -- the part of the brain that controls motor skills, balance and emotions.

"That's when the doctor called and didn't know what to say to us," Britton said in a telephone interview. "No one had ever seen it before. And then we'd go to the neurologists and they'd say, 'That's impossible.' 'He has the MRI of a vegetable,' one of the doctors said to us."

Chase is not a vegetable, leaving doctors bewildered and experts rethinking what they thought they knew about the human brain.  

Chase also is missing his pons, the part of the brain stem that controls basic functions, such as sleeping and breathing. There is only fluid where the cerebellum and pons should be, Britton said.
Ultrasound showed the kid had a cerebellum during pregnancy; but it vanished along the way. 

But that is not the most peculiar thing.  He does breathe and he does sleep, even without a pons.  He managed eventually to sit up on his own. Next he learned to crawl, and push himself upright.  Now, he's learning to walk.  These are things he should have been unable to do without a cerebellum to provide balance, if certain metaphysical stances were true.  

Now, like new arteries growing, this might be more common than it sounds; but it raises a peculiar question.  Evidently, other parts of the brain, in the cerebrum or medulla, have been recruited to take over tasks for which no cerebellum or pons stepped forward.  But who did the recruiting?  Is it the Brain that does all this, or is it Chase Britton, using his brain?

IOW, might the Brain be like any other bodily organ, an instrument used by the organism?  We don't say that the stomach ate a meal or that the legs went to the corner store.  Yet, we credit the Brain rhetorically with all sorts of autonomous actions, perhaps because we are reluctant to consider whether there might not be something more than the Brain.  Perhaps we are top-down and not bottom-up, after all.

UPDATE: Codgitator trumps Chase with a middle-aged Frenchman, married with children and gainfully employed, who has virtually no brain at all.  OK, a sort of shell of a brain.  See the normal brain on the left, and the Frenchman's brain on the right.

As you can see, there isn't much there.  The wonder is not that he has an IQ of 75, but that he has any IQ at all, or any life, for that matter.  The condition is called Dandy Walker complex and is a genetically sporadic disorder that occurs in one out of every 25,000 live births.  There have been enough such cases that Dr. John Lorber published a 1980 article in Science titled "Is the Brain Really Necessary?" [PDF link].  Mr. Codgitator comments:

"[I]t is the whole person, as a dynamic formal agent, that integrates all such neural, skeletal, physiological, etc. operations into one stream of conscious rational agency." and that "the Self, is not in the brain! On the contrary: the brain is in the self!"  No Brainer


  1. Interesting. I wrote about a similar case of a man in France a couple years ago.

  2. Along the same lines, my daughter was born without the Corpus Callosum (the white curved thing in the normal x-ray you show above). This structure is responsible for communication between the hemispheres... without it, all sorts of things should be impossible for her... yet, at only 5 months of age, she has met every milestone.


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