Sunday, July 24, 2005

Loss of face

On Thursday at work I had a conversation with one of the guys about the mental maps we have of our bodies. I can't remember how the topic came up, but I knew something about it from experience and tried to explain it to him.

"You carry a map of your body in your brain," I said. "When you feel any sensation in your body, the part of your brain that holds the corresponding part of the map is active."

"Uh-huh," he said, but he was looking at me funny. I think he thought this was leading up to a joke.

"That's why amputees feel phantom limbs," I said. "When a part of the body is amputated, the corresponding part of the map hangs around for quite a lot longer."

"Makes sense, I suppose," he said.

But then I tried to explain how it also works the other way.

"This also means that if you somehow damage the part of the brain that holds the part of the map for some part of your body, you can 'forget' you have that part," I said. "Sort of like a mental amputation without the physical amputation. People with that sort of brain damage can have some really weird symptoms."

He snorted. Perhaps he thought the punchline was getting closer.

"I'm not joking," I told him. "It happened to me. After I had a head injury my face started to disappear, sort of. It happened slowly. I mean, I knew it was there, but I kept forgetting for longer and longer periods. I was only aware of it because it happened slowly. It started around my hairline and moved in, so my face shrunk as I forgot the bits behind the line. But it wasn't really forgetting, because I knew it was there, theoretically. It was more like it became not really mine. Not a part of me. I'd move it - smile or something, and it hurt because everything hurt at that stage, but that particular pain wasn't important at all. It was the face's pain, and the face wasn't my face. It wasn't really anything to do with me. It just happened to be there, when I remembered, but it got so I didn't remember very often."

He wanted to know whether I was sure it was the accident. Wasn't I just having acid flashbacks or something?

I was indignant. "No!" I said. "I'd just dented a truck with my head, and anyway I'm pretty sure Tiger Oil doesn't work for acid flashbacks. That's how I dealt with it. I covered my face with Tiger Oil. I didn't actually care that I didn't have a face, but I knew I should care, and that something was wrong. I worried about what might happen next. So I used Tiger Oil to remind me that my face was there. The Tiger Oil didn't bother me, but I could feel it, and it reminded me that I had a face even though I didn't really care about not having one and not having one felt perfectly natural. But after a few days my face became mine again and the Tiger Oil started to be irritating. And then it got worse and felt like HELL. I couldn't stand it. I couldn't understand how I'd managed to cope with having Tiger Oil on my face in the first place. It was unbearable."

He stared at me.

"Well, would YOU slather Tiger Oil on a face if the face was yours?" I asked.

"Maybe, if I was having an acid flashback," he said.

I gave up.

I have never been able to explain this phenomenon clearly. Even the neurologist I was seeing looked at me sideways when I tried to explain how my face wasn't there anymore. When I closed my eyes and he touched my face I could feel it, and I could move it, and it was hard to explain what I was talking about. But if I didn't move or touch my face, it just wasn't there. Or rather, the idea of it wasn't there. It wasn't a loss, because it wasn't there to lose.

There are no words for the non-concern, the lack of regret, and the non-feeling of loss when your face disappears from your brain. It is a bizarrely non-eventful sort of event. I didn't understand it myself for quite a long time and was frustrated by my lack of ability to describe what it felt like (because it doesn't feel like anything, really), but then read about the body map thing somewhere and everything fell into place.

It might have been in the 2003 Reith Lectures that I first came across body maps, or I may have read it somewhere else first. I can't remember.

But wherever I read it first, I HIGHLY recommend that you read (or listen to) those lectures. (I think I may have recommended them before, actually, but they're good enough to read twice.) They are very long, but you will not want them to end. You will be fascinated, entertained, and provoked, I promise.

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Ms Mac said...

I don't think I have ever read anything quite as bizarre as the phenomenon you just described.

I mean that in the best possible way, of course!

carrie said...

very interesting.

Seed said...

You have a wonderful writing style, (maybe because you teach english...) and the previous blog before this one was fantastic to read. I wandered here from another blog and just had to comment something! Thats my useless comment finished :D

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Cheryl said...

I saw a programme once about someone who had permanent brain damage with the two halves separated - they could only draw half of what they saw - half a flower etc because the brain wouldnt recognise the other half, but like you say, it didnt seem to matter to them, the other half had become irrelevant - half a flower was still a flower, in their mind.
Glad you found a creative way to rebuild the connections!

Badaunt said...

Carrie: It's only bizarre to describe. Experiencing it wasn't bizarre at all. It felt perfectly normal! (Even though I knew, in an academic sort of way, that it was wrong...)

Cheryl: I've read about the half-face thing - I read about a woman who put makeup on half her face and left the other half, and couldn't see that it was weird. She couldn't 'see' the other half so it didn't exist for her.

I don't know whether my problem would have solved itself in time without any intervention or not, but when I read about what caused it later, I realised that I had accidentally hit on a sensible treatment when I used Tiger Oil. I thought I was just reminding myself that I had a face, but maybe I was actually rewriting the mental map, or at least strengthening it. I'll never know, of course, but it COULD have been an accidental act of genius!

Clever me, eh?

Lippy said...

Very interesting indeed. I think you probably were rewriting the connection between your brain and face.

I injured my lower back a long time ago and it wouldn't heal properly. So I eventually accepted the constant pain. Then I came across a treatment which offered relief. The technique was quite the reverse of orthodox treatment (rest and no exercise) whereby the muscles were isolated and rigorously exercised via a special chair. The isolation was done because the brain had 'forgotten' those muscles existed. At the time of injury, they'd 'switched off' and atrophied over time. Once they were physically isolated and exercised by this special machine, the brain was forcibly reminded that they were there. It took a few months, but I can now not only feel those muscles, but can stretch and exercise them at will.

The brain needs continuity to work, just like an electrical circuit. If that continuity is interrupted, things stop working. In the case of the brain, being organic and not mechanic, the circuit gets rebuilt if possible, circumventing damage. But sometimes it's not quite what was required or expected... It's such an amazing machine, isn't it?!