Neuroscience owes much to the brains of the gruesomely injured, whose crushed cortices have enabled doctors to study the workings of the mind under conditions that could never be ethically recreated in laboratory experiments. One such case is that of Patient M, who began experiencing the world back-to-front after being shot in the head during the Spanish Civil War.
Until this point, neurologists believed the brain to be made up of distinct regions that were separated by abrupt boundaries with little to no overlap. However, Patient M’s mangled sensory apparatus challenged this idea and allowed a doctor called Justo Gonzalo Rodríguez-Leal to devise a new theory of brain dynamics.
The Spanish Civil War was a brutal conflict that engulfed the country from 1936 to 1939, ending with the Nationalist victory over the Republicans and resulting in the establishment of a dictatorship under Francisco Franco. Fighting on the side of the Republicans, Patient M was 25 years old when he was shot in the head on a battlefield in Levante, Valencia, in May 1938.
After waking from a coma two weeks later, the stricken soldier reported no vision in his left eye and only a faint glimmer in the right. Sporting two gnarly holes in his skull where the bullet had entered and departed, the man confounded doctors by regaining his health without requiring surgery or any type of special care.
Observing Patient M over the next five decades, Rodríguez-Leal described a number of highly perplexing symptoms. For instance, in addition to seeing everything multiplied by three, the man also perceived colors “unstuck” from objects.
Most unusual of all, though, Patient M saw everything as though it had been inverted. Highlighting the case in his book, Cerebral Dynamics, Rodríguez-Leal revealed how the war veteran “found his abnormalities strange when, for example, he saw men working upside down on a scaffold.”
This sensory flip-flopping extended to the patient’s sense of sound and touch, both of which were processed by his brain as if originating from the opposite side of his body. Despite this severe discombobulation, the man was able to go about his life with little trouble – something Rodríguez-Leal attributed to the unconscious development of coping strategies, such as selective attention to intense stimuli.
In Cerebral Dynamics, the physician explains that the bullet appears to have impacted the left parieto-occipital region of Patient M’s brain. Observing the consequences of this injury, Rodríguez-Leal postulated that the brain might not be divided into distinct regions after all.
Based on the way in which the wound appeared to muddle the victim’s senses, he suggested that neurological functions might be organized into gradients that spread across the entire cortex, with different regions separated by gradual transitions.
In an interview with El Pais, Rodríguez-Leal’s daughter Isabel Gonzalo explains that Patient M – whose identity has never been revealed – lived a long and healthy life, passing away in the late 1990s. Despite surviving for 60 years in his back-to-front world, the former soldier was apparently largely untroubled by his peculiar condition.
More importantly, Patient M’s backwards brain helped to turn the field of neuroscience on its head.
[H/T: El Pais]