News Stories

You Can Get Along Fine with No Brain

The campus doctor at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. was treating a math major, when he noticed that the student's head was a little larger than normal. He referred the student to neurology professor John Lorber, who gave the student a CAT scan and discovered he has virtually no brain at all, despite having an IQ of 126 and doing well in college.

Instead of two hemispheres filling the cranial cavity, as is normally the case, the student has only a tiny bit of cerebral tissue covering the top of his spinal column. Lorber discovered he has hydrocephalus, in which the cerebrospinal fluid, instead of circulating around the brain and entering the bloodstream, becomes dammed up inside the brain, leaving no space for the brain to develop normally. The condition is usually fatal in the first months of childhood. When a patient survives, he's almost always seriously retarded. But somehow this student lived a normal life and even graduated from college with honors in math.

And he's not the only one. In 1970 in New York, an autopsy of a man who died at age 35 showed he had practically no brain at all. He wasn't an academic, but had a perfectly normal life as a building janitor, and was a popular figure in his neighborhood. He read the newspaper daily.

Professor Lorber has found several hundred people who have similar conditions. Some he describes as having "no detectable brain," yet they have scored up to 120 on IQ tests. No one knows how they're able to function at all, but one theory is that there is such a high level of redundancy in normal brain function that the tiny bit of brain these people do have is able to take over all the work of a normal-sized brain. Scientists have long believed that we only use about 10% of our brains.

But recent research seems to contradict this idea. The functions of the brain have been mapped comprehensively by newly-invented PET scanners, and although there is some redundancy, there is also a high degree of specialization in different areas of the brain. And the idea that we only use 10% of our brain comes from a misunderstanding dating from the 1930s, when the functions of large areas of the cortex could not be determined. We now know they carry out the important functions of speech and abstract thinking.

Another question is, where do people with no brains store their memories? It was once thought that memory has a physical existence in the brain, but extensive investigation has shown that memory is not located in any one area. One neurologist says, "Memory is everywhere in the brain and nowhere."

But if the brain isn't the place where experiences are stored and analyzed, then what's the brain used for? And if our human intelligence doesn't exist in our brains, where is it? Dr. Rupert Sheldrake is one scientist who rejects the idea that the brain is a warehouse for memories. He thinks it may be more like a radio receiver that can tune into the past like an internal time machine.





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