The Inspiring Story of the Man Missing 90% of His Brain

I read this article a while ago, but was just reminded of it recently, as I have begun exploring the concept of instinct and muscle memory.  This man is a perfectly healthy, with a job and a family, and is missing 90% of his brain mass.  While the theory of brain plasticity is presented, where one part can adapt to handle the role of another, and certainly contributes greatly to his survival, it doesn’t seem to bridge the entire gap.

Immediately upon reading it, I was reminded of my high school track days.  I threw shot put, and much of practice was spent critiquing and repeating the same basic motion. In my senior year, my dad (the coach), finally convinced me to do the spin, a much more difficult technique than what I had been using.  Not only were my days filled with this repetitive motion both physically and mentally, but at night my dreams would be filled with the same spin, throw, reset, pattern.  Eventually the pattern stuck- not just in my brain, but in my muscle memory, and I could probably throw a shot put using the spin to this day.  Driving without thinking/remembering, and riding a bike are two other common examples of this technique.

While the concept of muscle memory is known, I believe we don’t understand the depths of how much it can do, and this man acts as a curious example of the extreme.  Two questions arise:

  1. How much of our daily lives eventually get relegated to muscle memory?
  2. What is the rest of our brain doing all day??

On the first point, I do sales these days, and I realize that in each conversation there are parts where a series of words (the intro, certain questions, explanations, etc) flow from me without any additional thought.  Examining this closely, it seems like my brain simply pulls out the sequence for “explaining X” and then my mouth, lungs, and even body (I repeat a lot of the same hand motions the same way each time, despite being on the phone, like a seemingly superfluous dance) handle the rest.  If something as complex and variable as speech/social interaction can be turned into an instinct, is there a real limit to this process?

(On a personal note: To explain a little further, those that have known me a long time can attest to the fact that I grew up lacking any degree of social skill.  Some would say that’s the case now lol, and on some level they’re right.  Over the course of time, I’ve basically analyzed and codified social stimulus/response patterns to interact with other people in the way I describe above, using patterns and brain/body interaction to dramatically speed up a process that once left me frozen in real world interactions, and it has worked out pretty well.  I’m honestly not sure how most people seem to do it so effortlessly, but I’m glad I found a work around for myself.)

On the second point, I’ve often wondered what our brains are so busy doing all day.  We’ve got a machine in our heads, processing 2.2 million billion calculations/second, faster than all but the fastest supercomputers in the world.  We also see that we can inscribe our bodies with many of the basic functions that make up our daily lives, leaving much of our processing power available for… what?

(On a personal note: I have said many times that I can only focus well on one thing at a time (See Fighting Dragons for some indication of what “one thing” mean to me).  While this is not entirely true, since I have a couple of background programs running all the time, it is effectively true in the day to day I find myself in.  I believe I have effectively limited my focus on daily tasks to a small portion of my brain, to allow for these background programs room to flourish.)

In the end, a man with 90% of his brain missing can function just fine in a world like ours, so what have our brains been processing this whole time?  It has to be something; perhaps Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was not that far off.  I find the thought that there is much more to this than we realize inspiring.




~ by songoflove on October 11, 2016.

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