Before we start, let’s be clear: brain injuries are generally bad news. And traumatic brain injuries are really bad news. Most people who survive a traumatic brain injury have a difficult road ahead of them and often never fully recover. It’s a horrible experience for them and their loved ones.
That being said: the brain is a truly fascinating organ, and there are some (rare) cases where a brain injury has changed people in pretty remarkable – or just plain bizarre – ways. Skeptical? Read on:
Lisa Alamia: suddenly British?
In 2016, a woman named Lisa Alamia underwent general anesthesia for surgery on her jaw. When she woke up, she was speaking in a British accent. This wouldn’t have been that alarming if the hospital was located in London. Or if Lisa had been British. But Lisa’s surgery took place in Rosenberg, Texas, where she’d lived all her life – speaking with a south Texas accent.
Alamia’s daughter (and most people who knew her) presumed Alamia was pulling a rather odd prank. But she was diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome, a disorder that can happen after a stroke or brain injury.
People with Foreign Accent Syndrome generally continue to sound as intelligible as before, but their speech has the distinct tonality and pronunciation of a completely different country or culture. Other documented examples have included patients with accent changes from Spanish to Hungarian, English to French, and Japanese to Korean.
Chris Birch changed careers AND sexual orientations
In 2005, a Welsh man named Chris Birch was playing soccer with some friends in a park. As a joke, he did a somersault – but landed awkwardly on his neck, triggering a stroke. He woke up in the hospital and was told by the medical staff that he’d recover but that it would take many months.
Throughout his recovery, Chris began experiencing changes in his personality. Before his accident, he’d worked in a bank, was engaged to a woman he loved and spent his free time hanging with his friends in pubs and playing soccer.
But suddenly, Chris realized he had no taste for… any of that. He started to hate his job and found that when his friends would come to hang out, he had no interest in talking to them. One day, he also had a stunning realization that he was intensely attracted to a handsome man he saw on TV.
So, Chris made some huge changes in his life: he quit his job to become a hairdresser, and left his fiancée to live the rest of his life as a gay man. He credits his brain injury with changing him into the (very different) person he is today.
Phineas Gage, the man with a tamping iron in his head
Perhaps the most famous historical example of a traumatic brain injury is Phineas Gage. In 1848, Gage was working on a railroad. But a freak explosion at the worksite sent a tamping iron through his head (yes, through it).
In most cases, an accident like this would be a death sentence. But not in this case.
Not only did Gage survive, he was able to live a relatively long and full life. However, his personality was markedly different after the accident. Previously, he’d been a polite and diligent worker. But after the accident, Gage became impatient, started cursing, and would make plans only to disregard them immediately. He reportedly lost his social inhibitions altogether, and friends said he was no longer himself – but a completely different person altogether. Gage lost his job, became violent – and, by some accounts, was a child molester.
This bizarre case was one of the first to reveal the relationship between specific parts of the brain and personality/behavior.
Orlando Serrell became a date calculator and weather savant
Orlando Serrell was a fairly ordinary kid until age 10, when a baseball struck him in the head. He lost consciousness but then continued playing after he woke up. (This was in 1979, so clearly, people weren’t up to speed yet on concussion protocols.)
For a little while, Serrell had headaches from the accident, but those eventually cleared up. But he was left with two odd abilities: (1) since the accident, Serrell has been able to take any date and instantly calculate what day of the week it was. And (2) he has a clear memory of the weather and his own activities every day since 1979.
It’s an example of what’s called Acquired Savant Syndrome, where a patient acquires astounding skills or abilities after brain trauma.
Derek Amato became a talented pianist and composer
Source: Psychology Today)
Before his accident, Derek Amato had learned a few basic chords on the guitar and had even briefly been in a garage band. But he’d never played piano before, nor had he studied classical music or composition.
Yet after a nasty concussion he suffered in 2006 (the result of hitting his head on the bottom of a pool), Amato suddenly discovered that he knew how to play the piano – remarkably well.
Four days after his accident, Amato was at a friend’s house when he noticed a keyboard in the room. He sat down … and just started playing. And he’s been playing ever since. In fact, since that day Amato has had a compulsion to play and write music: he feels he’ll burst if he doesn’t. And while his music and composition skills aren’t on the ‘prodigy’ level, he’s still quite good at both. He now makes his living as a musician.
The hidden brain?
The fact that some traumatic brain injuries have unleashed powerful abilities has made scientists question what skills or personality characteristics might be "dormant" in the average brain. Some scientists have also wondered if it might be possible to unleash these skills/abilities without a brain injury.
And at The Deep, reading about these unusual cases has got us wondering:
? If our personalities and tastes can meaningfully change after a knock on the head… Does that mean “we” are located in our brains (that there is no soul)?
? If, after a brain injury, some people have “discovered” skills/abilities they’ve never practiced before … Does that mean we’re all geniuses — but just haven’t figured out how to unlock our most impressive abilities?