The New World Discovered in the Brain

Neuroscience is bit like land exploration before Google Earth and satellite navigation. You go off in search of the Japans and end up discovering the ‘new World’. Ron Blackwell’s doctors went into his brain in search of the parts that were causing his seizures and came across the parts responsible for facial recognition and a lot of his perceptions of the world beyond Ron.

These modern-day Columbuses didn’t plant flags in Ron’s brain rather they embedded electrodes in what turned out to be the ‘wrong’ areas of his brain. When Ron’s neurologists turned on the juice in the belief they would be turning off his seizures, he said, “Your nose got saggy and went off to the left. You just turned into somebody else. Your face metamorphosed.”

This was part of Ron’s commentary on a specially commissioned CGI recreation of the ‘World as seen by Ron Blackwell’. There are two-minute places within the brain that have the specific task of perceiving and identifying human faces. This new Ron Blackwell study has been able to provide insights into the rare cognitive disorder commonly called ‘facial blindness’.

The brain explorers at Stanford University passed tiny electrical impulses through the electrodes implanted in their patients ‘mid and posterior fusiform gyri’. The patient willingly underwent the experience in the desire to isolate the part of his brain that was troubling him with unpredictable seizures. The report from the study then goes on to describe how they found the two electrodes to be located just in the place by accident.

Ron continued his description of his perception change thus, “It warped. It kind of stretched and dropped,only your face changed… Everything else was the same.” The weirdly distorting and disturbing experiences ceased as and when the electrical impulses were stopped. There are two interesting points to be made about this accidental discovery. One is that the areas of the brain can now be, for the first time, tagged as essential to our abilities in facial recognition. Secondly the study suggests that extraordinary activity within these areas can lead to individually warped perceptions of the ‘real’ world outside of our heads.

The leading neurologist and author of the Blackwell study feels that neuroscience has taken a big step forward saying, “All reality is in our brain. Any abnormal activity (i.e., abnormal electrical firing of neurons) will lead to illusions and even delusions.” The study results were confirmed by using false electrical impulses and brain imaging across a number of different faces. Neuroscientists are excited by this new data because as one puts it, “It’s really a spectacular finding in this field. It’s a rare and precious case in which we can show that a part of the brain is actually a critical part of the machinery we use when we see faces.”

The report also makes the point that these two areas of the brain are not activated when we are perceiving objects other than faces.

Claire Al-Aufi

Claire Al-Aufi is a contributing author for Hive Health Media who provides updates on health and fitness news.

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