The human brain can do some amazing things - and humans can do amazing things because of it. Just to name one example, we can accept light along the visible wavelength reflected from objects in our environment into our eyes. Our optic nerves convert that light into electrochemical impulses, which is the language the brain uses to communicate. As this electricity passes along a neural network, it reaches the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for analyzing and categorizing these impulses.
These categories determine which region of the brain receives the impulses routed by the hippocampus. So, an impulse sent to the visual cortex suddenly becomes a large green metal road sign that we understand as our exit. We veer the car off the highway and continue on toward the grocery store happy as a lark.
Even the most mundane operations of our brains are pretty amazing. Those feats, however, are nothing compared to some of the things that a small handful of people's brains have done. What follows, in no particular order, is a tidy list of some of the most amazing -- and horrible -- things that people's brains have ever done.
By all accounts, Pam Reynolds, a blues singer from Atlanta, Ga., was a normal person before she underwent surgery for a brain aneurysm. During the procedure, physicians drained all of the blood from Reynolds' brain, rendering it completely inactive for 45 minutes. All normal brain operations -- from accepting signals from the stomach that the sensation of hunger should cease or the transmission of aural and visual information -- ceased.
Yet, upon awakening, physicians found Reynolds could describe the procedure in incredible detail. She's considered one of the most solid examples of a near-death experience (NDE) on record. Reynolds' experience is far from unique; one study of cardiac patients in a single hospital in the Netherlands found that of the 344 patients who'd been declared clinically dead, 18 percent reported having some experience of life after death [source: van Lommel].
What's most impressive about Reynolds' NDE is that her brain was brought to a nonfunctioning state by an experienced medical staff. Yet, she was still capable somehow of relating information like the type of bone saw her physicians used to cut off her skull and conversation between the operating staff [source: Sabom].
Henry Molaison was a one-of-a-kind brain patient. He was literally the only person to have ever undergone a radical procedure that removed the medial temporal lobe to treat debilitating seizures. When his physician found what had become of his patient's memory, the doctor refused to carry out the procedure on anyone else and successfully lobbied against its use by other physicians.
What happened? The removal of Molaison's medial temporal lobes, located above the ears, left him with the rare disorder of complete anterograde amnesia. As a result of this condition, Molaison was completely unable to form any new memories. Molaison could retain old memories and remember the ones he'd formed throughout his life up until the surgery that took place in his 20s. He was also capable of forming procedural memories, or habits. However, he couldn't form new declarative memories, or remember who his friends were, what he'd had for lunch or who was president. He lived this way for 55 years, dying in 2008 at age 82 [source: Carey].
Because of his unique condition, Molaison served as the subject of a number of studies, becoming widely known in the neurological community as patient "H.M."
Robin Jenks Vanderlip had never been to Russia or even a Soviet territory before. She didn't even live on the side of the U.S. that's closest to Russia; the resident of McLean, Va., spent her life on the Eastern seaboard. Yet two days after she fell on a staircase and hit her head, she awoke and found herself unable to speak. When she did slowly regain her ability to speak once more, she found she'd developed what sounds like a Russian accent, with /th/ sounds replaced with /d/, for example.
Vanderlip is one of about 60 people in the world to be diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome, a rare disorder arising from brain damage, such as physical trauma or stroke [source: Schulte]. In the rarest cases, no underlying cause is found.
Although it sounds like an identifiable foreign accent, FAS sufferers haven't actually developed one; instead, the brain's speech centers change the way that the patient forms words. What's most amazing about the little-understood FAS is that the words are incorrectly formed in a predictable pattern that resembles existing global accents, even if the person hasn't encountered such an accent before [source: FAS Support]. Makes one wonder why we have accents in the first place.
When the Canadian novelist Howard Engel suffered a stroke in 2001, he thought, "Well I'm done as a writer. I'm finished" [source: Krulwich]. This was a sensible thing to think since he realized that one of the main symptoms of his stroke was to have wiped out his ability to recognize printed English, which he used to write his novels. Instead, it looked like gibberish in some foreign language, like Korean. None of the words or even letters made sense any longer.
But, astoundingly, Engel soon figured out a way to continue to write, despite his inability to make sense of the words. He transferred provenance of his writing from his visual memory to his motor memory. A word would be identified for him and he would trace the letters again and again, using repetition to form the motor memory of what motions created the letters that spelled the word. He found that he could solidify these memories by tracing the words along the roof of his mouth with the tip of his tongue.
When he's exposed to writing, he can trace the shapes in his mouth, which unlocks the motor memory and tells him what words he's looking at. Conversely, when Engel needs to write a word for one of his novels, he draws the word from memory and can recreate it.
A 10-year-old German girl's perfect vision baffled doctors - because she was born with only the left hemisphere of her brain. Humans with both hemispheres see because visual information delivered by the optic nerves cross over to the opposite hemisphere for processing and storage. So, one brain hemisphere should mean that only one eye works; in the girl's case, only her right eye should work.
Yet, the girl enjoys normal, binocular vision and in 2010, doctors scanned her brain to determine why. It turned out that through a process called plasticity, the optic nerve from her left eye had migrated to her left hemisphere; in other words, the left side of the girl's brain was accepting visual information from both eyes.
Astoundingly, the visual cortex on her left hemisphere had developed areas set aside for processing information from the left eye, which avoided confusion [source: PhysOrg].
Within three days after her birth in May 2008, an Australian known as "Baby Z" in the medical literature began suffering seizures as a result of her rare genetic defect, molybdenum cofactor deficiency. As a result of an inability to produce enzymes that make the cofactor, sulphite builds in the brain to toxic levels, essentially melting it until the patient dies. Along the way, the child suffers seizures and excruciating pain; as a result of damage to the brain tissue, functions like swallowing and movement are impaired [source: Appignani, et al].
Baby Z represented the first time that the disorder was successfully treated. An experimental treatment developed in Germany was flown to Australia, received special approval for use in the country by an Australian court and was administered to the two-week old baby. After three days of treatment, the child became alert and stopped the twitching that accompanied her seizures. Within a few weeks, she was cured of her disease and is alive and well, with a brain that can process sulphite [source: West].
In 1996, a 22-year-old American woman suffered head trauma due to a car accident. Two years after that, she began to suffer seizures. Unfortunate, yes, but not too out of the ordinary. In 2004, however, she was brought to the psychiatric ward of a Pittsburgh hospital, presenting with delusions that strangers around her were actually her friends and family members in disguise. The woman told the hospital staff, for example, that another patient was her boyfriend and that a nearby social worker was actually her sister and that her mother was posing as one of the nurses.
The woman was diagnosed with a rare condition called Fregoli syndrome, named after a turn-of-the-century Italian actor who was famed for his quick costume and character changes. Sufferers of the disorder imagine that the people in their world are all the same person or handful of persons posing in disguises.
Orlando Serrell is a rare type of incredibly gifted person; his gift came not naturally but at the end of a baseball bat. While playing a game of ball at age 10, Serrell was hit in the head and developed a headache for a few days. After it cleared up, he found that he could instantly spit out the day of the week for any date since August 17, 1979, the day he was struck. In most cases, he also includes not only the day of the week, but also what the weather was like that day around his Virginia home and other details of his life on that day [source: Lammle].
Serrell says his amazing ability is the result of seeing his calendar answers in his mind's eye, rather than running over a mental calendar or carrying out quick math [source: Lammle].
Up until 1990, a man named Toimi Soini of Finland held the world record for staying awake a full 276 hours, which equals 11 ½ days without sleep [source: Salkeld]. Although no one has bested Soini's record, it no longer appears in the Guinness books, since the organization withdrew the category entirely on health grounds.
That's because we need sleep and those who don't get to sleep at all, in fact, die. This was the horrific cause of death for Chicago music teacher Michael Corke, whose brain literally stopped shutting down and allowing him to sleep. Corke suffered from a rare form of prion disease called fatal familial insomnia, where the PrPc gene stops encoding proteins, which allows plaque to build up around the thalamus [source: Merck]. This brain region is responsible for regulating our sleep patterns, and with its transmissions interrupted by plaque, the mind and body remain in a state of wakefulness.
Within a few months Corke deteriorated into dementia. In an effort to shut his brain down, physicians induced a coma with sedatives and found that his brain continued to remain active [source: Flusfeder]. Corke died in 1992, six months after his insomnia first began.
It was pretty lucky that Sam Esquibel's mom put off having labor induced when she neared her delivery date. If she hadn't, she may not have been given the last ultrasound that revealed the large tumor growing in her son's brain. Three days after Sam was delivered, he underwent brain surgery to explore and remove the growth.
When surgeons reached the tumor and cut it open, they were astonished to see a tiny foot pop out of the incision. Yes, you read that correctly; Sam Esquibel's brain had grown a small, normally developed foot. Two diagnoses quickly emerged, teratoma or fetus in fetu. The former is an uncommon type of tumor where recognizable growths like hair, teeth, skin and nails develop within a tumor. The latter, which means "fetus in fetus", is an even rarer condition (less than 10 reported cases in the brain) where one twin absorbs the other in the womb [source: Newsome]. The absorbed twin becomes parasitic, eventually killing the twin that absorbed it.
After exploring more deeply in the tumor, surgeons at Memorial Children's Hospital in Colorado determined that the growth was indeed the result of fetus in fetu. In addition to the foot, they discovered a thigh, hand and intestine [source: Celizic]. Surgeons successfully removed the tumor and Sam Esquibel is alive and well.
HowStuffWorks looks at a new study trying to determine why we can hear other people's footsteps but not the ones we make.
- Appignani, Barbara A., et al. "CT and MR appearance of the brain in two children with mylobdenum cofactor deficiency." American Journal of Neuroradiology. February 1996. http://www.ajnr.org/cgi/reprint/17/2/317.pdf
- Carey, Benedict. "Henry Molaison, amnesiac and study subject." Boston Globe. December 6, 2008. http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/obituaries/articles/2008/12/06/henry_molaison_amnesiac_and_study_subject/?page=full
- Celizic, Mike. "Baby OK after foot is removed from brain." Today Show. January 13, 2009. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/28635507/ns/today-today_health
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- Foreign Accent Syndrome Support. "About FAS." University of Texas at Dallas. (Nov. 14, 2010.)http://www.utdallas.edu/research/FAS/about/
- Krulwich, Robert. "The writer who couldn't read" NPR. June 21, 2010. http://www.wbur.org/npr/127745750
- Lammle, Rob. "The amazing stories of 6 sudden savants." Mental Floss. June 29, 2010. http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/59337
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- Newsome, Brian. "'I've never seen anything like it,' doctor says of newborn baby's brain surgery." The Colorado Springs Gazette. December 15, 2008.http://www.gazette.com/articles/brain-44861-sam-doctor.html
- PhysOrg. "Scientists reveal secret of girl with 'all seeing eye'." July 20, 2009. http://www.physorg.com/news167324813.html
- Sabom, Michael. "People have NDEs while brain dead." Near-Death.com. (Nov. 14, 2010.) http://www.near-death.com/experiences/evidence01.html
- Salkeld, Luke. "Cornishman sleeps after 11 days (but he's in for a rude awakening)." Daily Mail. May 26, 2007.http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-457403/Cornishman-sleeps-11-days-hes-rude-awakening.html
- Schulte, Brigid. "Woman hits head, wakes up with Russian accent." Washington Post. May 28, 2010. http://www.thestar.com/living/article/815865--woman-hits-head-wakes-up-with-russian-accent
- Treffert, Darold A. MD. "The 'aquired' savant - 'accidental' genius." Wisconsin Medical Society. (Nov. 15, 2010.)http://www.wisconsinmedicalsociety.org/savant_syndrome/savant_articles/acquired_savant
- West, William. "Miracle Aussie baby beats rare brain condition in world first use." PhysOrg. November 5, 2009.http://www.physorg.com/news176620927.html