No Brain? No Problem.

OK, it should be “no left temporal lobe,” but my title is punchier. Anyway, Grace Browne writes for WIRED about a remarkable case study:

In early February 2016, after reading an article featuring a couple of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who were studying how the brain reacts to music, a woman felt inclined to email them. “I have an interesting brain,” she told them.

EG, who has requested to go by her initials to protect her privacy, is missing her left temporal lobe, a part of the brain thought to be involved in language processing. EG, however, wasn’t quite the right fit for what the scientists were studying, so they referred her to Evelina Fedorenko, a cognitive neuroscientist, also at MIT, who studies language. It was the beginning of a fruitful relationship. The first paper based on EG’s brain was recently published in the journal Neuropsychologia, and Fedorenko’s team expects to publish several more.

For EG, who is in her fifties and grew up in Connecticut, missing a large chunk of her brain has had surprisingly little effect on her life. She has a graduate degree, has enjoyed an impressive career, and speaks Russian—a second language–so well that she has dreamed in it. She first learned her brain was atypical in the autumn of 1987, at George Washington University Hospital, when she had it scanned for an unrelated reason. The cause was likely a stroke that happened when she was a baby; today, there is only cerebro-spinal fluid in that brain area. […] Over the years, she says, doctors have repeatedly told EG that her brain doesn’t make sense. One doctor told her she should have seizures, or that she shouldn’t have a good vocabulary—and “he was annoyed that I did,” she says. (As part of the study at MIT, EG tested in the 98th percentile for vocabulary.) The experiences were frustrating; they “pissed me off,” as EG puts it. “They made so many pronouncements and conclusions without any investigation whatsoever,” she says.

Then EG met Fedorenko. “She didn’t have any preconceived notions of what I should or shouldn’t be able to do,” she recalls. And for Fedorenko, an opportunity to study a brain like EG’s is a scientist’s dream. EG was more than willing to help. Fedorenko’s lab is working to shed some light on the development of the vast array of brain regions thought to play a role in language learning and comprehension. The exact role of each has yet to be demystified, and exactly how the system emerges is a particularly tricky element to study. […] When EG turned up at her lab, Fedorenko recognized that this could be a golden opportunity for understanding how her remaining brain tissue has reorganized cognitive tasks. “This case is like a cool window to ask that kind of question,” she says. “It’s just sometimes you’d get these pearls that you try to take advantage of.” It’s incredibly rare for someone like EG to offer themselves up to be poked and prodded by scientists.

For most people, the majority of language processing takes place in the brain’s left hemisphere. For some, the load is split equally between the two hemispheres. Even more rarely, the right hemisphere takes up most of the task. (Scientists are not quite sure why, but if you’re left-handed, it seems you’re “likely to wire up your language system in the right hemisphere,” says Greta Tuckute, a doctoral student in Fedorenko’s lab and the first author of the paper.)

Language processing largely takes place in two major parts of the brain: the frontal and the temporal regions. The temporal lobes develop first; then the frontal areas develop later, at around 5 years old. At this point, the language network is considered fully mature. Because EG’s left temporal lobe is missing, Fedorenko’s team had a chance to answer an interesting question: Are the temporal regions a prerequisite for setting up the frontal language areas? […] They concluded that in the absence of her left temporal lobe, the task of language processing seems to have simply shifted over to EG’s right hemisphere. A single hemisphere appears to be sufficient to give her proficient language skills. […]

Going forward, Fedorenko’s lab hopes to learn much more from EG’s brain. In a preprint posted online last month that has not yet been peer reviewed or published by a journal, they looked at a brain region called the visual word form area, which is thought to be responsible for decoding the written forms of words. In neurotypical people, the region is found in the left ventral temporal cortex; but for EG, the function is distributed throughout her brain, and she’s a “really good, fast reader,” says Fedorenko. For a future study, they’re also looking into how EG’s missing temporal lobe affects her auditory system.

There’s more at the link, of course; this is fascinating stuff, and I look forward to what else they discover. (Incidentally, if you’re curious about the surname Tuckute, it’s Lithuanian Tučkutė, the unmarried-female equivalent of Tučkus.) Thanks, Bathrobe!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I’m surprised that this is thought surprising. Children’s brains show great plasticity. I myself once saw a seven-year-old girl in whom Broca’s area was completely destroyed by a head injury. Postoperatively she was completely aphasic. A year later she was speaking and understanding normally.

  2. Well, it’s not *that* surprising — as you point out, we’ve learned a lot about this stuff in recent times — but it’s still at least a bit surprising. To me, anyway.

  3. Apparently, children recover from hemispherectomy quite well.

    (When I looked it up, first thing that came up was WebMD: “What are the side effects of a hemispherectomy? They may include: Headaches. Trouble concentrating. Forgetfulness. Trouble finding the right words. Feeling tired. Numbness in your scalp. Nausea…” That all sounds, uh, mildly irritating?)

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    My experience in neurosurgery (brief, and at a very junior level) occasionally made it hard to believe that the brain has anything in particular to do with the mind at all …

    Favourite (actual) quote from a (perfectly real) neurosugeon:

    “You know, it’s amazing how much of the brain you can flush away down the sucker and the patient seems to be none the worse in the morning.”

    One was left with the general feeling that the main function of the cerebral cortex is to provide a sort of intracranial crash cushion for the (actually necessary-for-life) brain stem.

  5. David Marjanović says

    I read about a teenager with a hemispherectomy (I think on the left side) some 25 years ago. The article was accompanied by an impressive MRI-or-something image: nothing but cerebrospinal fluid in half of the braincase. Not only did the girl speak, but she was natively bilingual in German and Turkish.

    I’ve noticed that when I make a huge effort to understand a language I’m not good at for something like an hour or two*, I get a localized but symmetric headache, evidently in both temporal lobes.

    * Very specific conditions – I don’t think I’ve had the experience more than twice. With two different languages, though.

    occasionally made it hard to believe that the brain has anything in particular to do with the mind at all …

    I think it gives us a hint at how many ways there are to do the same thing. There’s an old idea, based on comparative brain anatomy, that thinking is an exaptation from smelling in mammals, but from seeing in birds; yet, when you watch gray parrots or New Caledonian crows being smart, you don’t get the impression they’re doing something alien.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    I think it gives us a hint at how many ways there are to do the same thing.

    Absolutely. As Larry Wall says: “There’s more than one way to do it.” Words to live by …

  7. This man had a barbed hunting arrow shot in his eye socket playing William Tell. Because of the barbs, the arrow couldn’t be pulled out but had to be pushed out the back of his head through a hole cut in his skull.

    Apparently the main danger in cases like this is cutting an artery, which will probably (or maybe certainly) be fatal. The word is that the brain itself is “very forgiving”, A friend of mine knew the chief surgeon in the case, who said “Any intelligence he ever had, he still has”. He himself said “I feel pretty dumb”.

    Redundancy and plasticity would be something you’d want in a key organ like the brain, so the evolution god designed it that way.

  8. Phineas Gage suffered a serious personality change when a tamping iron “–43 inches long, 1.25 inches in diameter and weighing 13.25 pounds—shot skyward, penetrated Gage’s left cheek, ripped into his brain and exited through his skull, landing several dozen feet away”. But that’s a pretty extreme case. .

  9. So does this prove that language is innate, or not? Merge is a pretty low bar for any part of the brain to clear, one would think. Again, Chomsky seems to be right.

  10. My untutored understanding is that Chomsky believes the brain is hard-wired to produce language. This seems to say that no matter which wires it travels across, language replicates. To me, it suggests that some aspects of language are inherent to the information being communicated and the sources of input, rather than innate to the structures interpreting them.

  11. John Cowan says

    I heard once about an extreme case of hydrocephalus, a young woman whose cortex was a few-mm-thick layer at the extreme top of her head, who was also a brilliant student and a classical pianist. She just had to have the extra fluid removed occasionally.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    This too I have actually seen (though in a maths student at Cambridge rather than a classical pianist.)

  13. “There’s more than one way to do it.” Words to live by …

    One could live by other words instead, of course …

    Humans (and higher mammals in general, we might suppose) have a seemingly insuperable appetite for wholeness. Whatever CNS is there for a start, or whatever is left after the loss of some capacity or part, the same old conviction remains: “This is me. This is an integrated self, and it’s here as a matter of cartesian certainty.”

    And in those with a completely severed corpus callosum (the so-called split-brain patients) there is no sense of twoness. The same old implicit virtuouso confabulation continues: “Here I am. Just me. I’m all here!” They’re good at it because they’ve been doing it all their lives – like the rest of us, two-hemisphered though we are.

    Similarly, in Anton syndrome there can be complete loss of sight through damage to the primary visual cortex, but the patient doesn’t notice. Stumbling against furniture, she might say: “Why is it so dark? Could we have the light on please?”

    Know thyself. If thou can’st not, then invent thyself. If I didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent me.

  14. No Brain? No Problem.

    How do you translate it into Russian? (second from the top)

  15. Boy, Ev is really going on the full PR media tour, eh? (cf. this).

  16. Ryan: “My untutored understanding is that Chomsky believes the brain is hard-wired to produce language.” — that not exactly wrong, it’s just the theories he builds around that that are wrong. And the ideas about what language is in the first place.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Q: Is Noam Chomsky’s understanding of language correct?

    A: Essentially, yes. However, his theories are false, and they do not apply to language.

  18. Stu Clayton says

    There seems to be a consensus here that speech is compatible with very little brain. Surely that points a moral: that we would lose little by being more forgiving towards each other, at least in respect of what we say ? It ain’t gonna happen, of course, jes’ sayin’.

  19. I’m not at all involved in the Chomskian brouhaha; I was taught in the Ferdinand de Saussure tradition. I’m just describing.

  20. Q: Is Noam Chomsky’s understanding of language correct?

    A: Essentially, yes. However, his theories are false, and they do not apply to language.

    Pretty damning and nicely put.

    There is nothing particularly wrong with Chomsky’s theories per se. The problem is the number of people who believe in them roughly on the same level as the Ten Commandments. (A big difference from the Ten Commandments, of course, is that Moses is still around and keeps doing a complete rewrite from time to time.)

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