Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Who are you?

"One day, in the foothills of middle age, Robert took a long hard look at himself in the mirror. The reflection sent an unequivocal message. Life was running out and he was going nowhere. He was stale: bored with his job, out of love with his wife, stifled by his family, disenchanted with himself. But what struck him much harder, gripped him and shook him to the core of his being, was the thought that at the end of this dreary line of days, there was oblivion. It was time for a change.

"That day on his way to work he stopped at the newsagents, as usual, to buy a newspaper. He paid for it but, on the way out, when the shopkeeper wasn't looking, Robert took a chocolate bar from the shelf and slipped it into his pocket. This little act of theft was curiously energizing. His senses felt stripped and raw and he ran back to his car in a whorl of elation. He drove faster than he should, but, instead of going to work, he travelled 320 miles from Yorkshire to Cornwall. By early evening, he found himself sitting on a beach, in the face of a warm sea breeze. Robert was profoundly happy.

"The sun set, it grew dark and chilly, but he stayed there all night, conceding to sleep only as the sun rose in another part of the sky...He returned home late in the day with no explanation except the truth and spent another sleepless night placating his distressed wife.


"Life reverted to routine for a couple of weeks...The next day, out of nowhere, he announces to his wife that their marriage is over and he leaves her, the house, the children, and his new guitar, never to return...Two years later, living alone in a threadbare bed-sit in the suburbs of a northern city, Robert can scarcely recall the Cornish interlude...Robert's fourth seizure happens in the middle of a supermarket and, afterwards, he's taken to hospital. The doctors...investigate with head scans and find a large mass in the orbitofrontal region of the brain. It turns out to be a meningioma. This is a tumour, intrinsically benign, which has invaded the outer coverings of the brain. It has been growing for several years. By distorting the frontal lobes of Robert's brain, it was reshaping the very person he felt himself to be. They operate. Tumour excised, Robert enquires of his nurses most days 'When are my children coming' and 'Can I go home now?' "

This is an extract from Paul Broks's brilliant and haunting book 'Into the Silent Land', and concerns a real case-study. Broks is a neuropsychologist. He points out that "some people grow old and die never knowing that for half their life or more they were harbouring a benign brain tumour. Perhaps they never know who they might have been." This is, indeed, a disturbing thought, although leaving one's job to drive down to the beach might well be considered a sign of mental health, rather than a symptom of brain cancer!

In addition, is there not a sense in which the stream of experiences to which we are subject, determines our personalities? Whilst our personalities can be changed by changing the hard-wiring of the brain, as a tumour such as Robert's does, our personalities can also be changed by our experiences. It is our experiences which partially determine the software of our brains, and the data stored within. Hence, we can ask who we might have been, if only our experiences had been different. Sadly, there is, as yet, no operation to excise tumourous parts of our memories.


Anonymous said...

That book sounds fascinating. Yes, my intitial thought on that Reginald Perrin moment was 'sensible man'.

It was a bit disturbing to find it was all due to a brain tumour because what he did before the operation made much more sense to me.

Art Durkee said...

Back when I actually worked a regular corporate job, albeit as a graphic designer and thus excused from some if not all of the kowtowing required of the average salaryman, I would take occasional sick days, that were really mental health days. I would call in, because I was scared enough of losing my income to be somewhat responsible about it, then I would go to the lake, or somewhere, and do nothing. Or read and write. Just take a mental day away from the usual stresses. I am convinced this practice helped me survive, and I probably should have done more of it.

As far as I know, I've never had brain cancer. I do find it tiresome that nowadays all forms of "aberrant" (i.e. unexpected) behavior tend to be blamed on biological rather than psychological causes: psychology has become WAY too materialistic.

Towards the end of my corporate career, I finally did what I had fantasized doing, more than once: rather than calling in sick, I called in well: "Hi, I'm feeling too good today, and it's too nice a day, to come in to the office. If I feel down tomorrow, I'll come in early."

Bill Peschel said...

But how much can our experiences affect our personalities? It seems our personalities are established early on, and the choices we make that leads to those experiences simply reinforce our personalities.

It seems to me that it takes extreme experiences to effect any change in who you are, almost on the level of the man with the brain tumor.

Anonymous said...

Peter Kramer argued in _Listening to Prozac_ that our early experiences do indeed shape our brains. They develop our neural pathways. If we have happy early experiences, we have lots of pathways to dopamine and happiness. If we have negative and stressful and *unhappy* early experiences, the neural pathways to happiness close down -- they are never used and the brain has fewer and fewer dopamine enriched experiences.

What Prozac and other drugs do -- serotonin reuptake inhibitors, I believe they're called, serotonin being the vehicle that conveys the dopamine to receptor sites (I hope I have that right) so that the personality connected to the brain can *feel* it -- is reopen the unused pathways to pleasure. They, literally, remap the brain.

So, can our experiences affect our brains as much as a tumor? Damn straight they can.

Anonymous said...

our personalities also determine our experiences; we miss much because we can't apprehend it, don't expect or want it, and so just blank it out. We're in a kind of feedback situation, in that we generate the experiences that then in turn reinforce our personality. So Milton's Satan & Marlowe's Mephistopheles say aptly that they are in Hell wherever they are, they carry it with them, and of course mean to damn others to the same fate.