Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Making lemonade from the absence of a lemon

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, neurology, neuroscience, autobiographies

I seldom show a book jacket, but this book's cover illustration tells the objective story. Nicole Cohen has a hole in her brain the size of a lemon. It is not in a random location, but represents most of her right parietal lobe.

As she tells us in Head Case: My Brain and Other Wonders, this was not determined until she was in her early twenties and preparing to go to graduate school. She did not yet have a driver's license, but felt she really needed one at this point. Yet so far, she had been unable to pass a driving test. A long list of impairments finally convinced doctors to order MRI and other tests. Finally. Finally she knew she wasn't "just weird" or "not paying attention". A necessary bit of her brain was missing.

The parietal lobes integrate our sense for time and distance. They are necessary to form an accurate internal map of the world. We seldom realize that our ability to navigate the world requires us to sense the relationships of other objects to each other and to ourselves, both in space and time. If you can't judge how far an oncoming car is and how quickly it is approaching, you can't safely cross the street.

Children learn safe crossing by about age six or eight. Cole Cohen never has. She crosses with others, relying on their sense of time and space. While other children were learning to navigate the world safely, she learned how to rely on other people's abilities. Thus she could safely walk, but you can't drive that way.

Her writing is fluid and enjoyable to read; she is not "dumb". You don't need street-crossing skills to navigate your way to Bachelors' and Masters' degrees. She has learned to play well the hand she was dealt. As she writes, it hasn't been easy. Certain aspects of human relationships were as foreign to her as the distance to the nearest door. Touch is particularly problematic, probably because when she was quite young, touching something usually meant she'd misjudged where she was going and had just knocked something over. She learned to cope. She learned to thrive. A heartening story.

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