Sep 17 2007

When I Nod My Head, You Hit It.

Several people sent me this article which tells the interesting tale of a Czech speedway racer who suddenly acquired the ability to speak “perfect” English, in an English accent, after hitting his head in a speedway accident. The report, missing many key details, is also likely grossly inaccurate.

The notion that a person can gain neurological function is nothing more than a movie cliche – one I suspected most people realized is not based in reality. But still the idea of someone regaining their lost memoris have being knocked in the head is a persistent one. There is enough fishy about such stories to make all but the most gullible scratch their heads and ask, “Does that really happen?” As a neurologist, I have often been asked that question.

This latest story is just a new version of this old and greatly implausible dramatic device. We are told by the Daily Mail (a news source that does not inspire me to much confidence) that 18 year old Matej Kus was knocked unconscious after a speedway accident. While he was being evaluated by the emergency medical technicians (EMT’s) his friends were shocked to hear him speaking fluent English. Matej is studying English, but at best speaks very broken minimal English. After a few hours this new ability vanished. Matej does not remember the incident – he has forgotten that day and the following two days.

Matej is quoted in the article as saying: “There must be plenty of the English language in my subconscious so hopefully I’ll be able to pick it up quickly next time.”

His promoter, Peter Waite, is also quoted as saying: “It was in a really clear English accent, no dialect or anything. Whatever happened in the crash must have rearranged things in his head.

The story has also been picked up by many pro-paranormal websites. Here are a few typical comments from

“I find this piece of news absolutely amazing. Yet more real life hard evidence that human ability is far more advanced than most sceptics believe.”

“The brain is not the seat of the mind, as science wants us to believe, but only a translator of energy. Damaging a part of the brain allowed other frequencies (in this case English) to sift in. Or the guy shifted to a parallel world. any other ideas”

“lets bring on the sceptics of paranormal phenomena to explain this one.”

As we see, bad information and bad reporting is often fodder for pseudoscience. There are two basic misconceptions at work here – the first is that trauma to the brain can somehow alter its function and even uncover previously hidden memories or talents, the second is that vast amount of information or fantastic abilities can be hidden deep within the brain, in the “subconscious”, untapped but waiting to be brought out.

Head (or more accurately, brain) trauma can indeed alter brain function, but always for the worse. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) can cause temporary unconsciousness and can cause amnesia – the loss of memory, which can either be retrograde (loss of memories from prior to the injury) or anterograde (loss of new memories after the injury). If specific parts of the brain are damaged it can also cause loss of specific brain functions. In fact language deficits are not uncommon following TBI. It can also cause global disfunction, usually experienced as poor short term memory, difficulty learning new things, poor concentration, inability to multi-task and easy distractibility, and depression.

It is true that some brain structure serve a primarily inhibitory function – they inhibit or decrease the activity of other brain structure. But this inhibitory function is a useful and adaptive thing – it’s what enables us to keep from saying every socially unacceptable thing that pops into our heads. Sometimes injury results in a disinhibitory syndrome – the inability to control unwanted behaviors.

I am not aware of any cases, nor could I find any reports documented in the medical literature, of someone gaining a new ability after a head trauma. Damage only results in a loss of function. There is no plausible mechanism for gaining function. The only theoretical possibility (if highly unlikely scenario) is that an individual, for some quirky reason, had inhibition of a useful ability and the inhibitory part of the brain was damaged, unmasking the previously blocked ability.

The quote from Waite is indicative of the misconception that head trauma can rearrange things in the brain (I get the feeling that not much thought is expended on exactly what form this “rearranging” would take). Perhaps this belief comes from the habit of whacking the side of a malfunctioning TV set to improve its function. Inside a TV it is possible, and even probable, that a loose connection of some sort is causing problems, and a physical jostle may move pieces into better contact. Or perhaps moving parts may be jammed and a quick slap may unstick them. These have no analogy inside the brain, however.

The second, and more insidious, misconception is that our brains contain vast untapped resources – and not just raw material but actual stored information and cognitive ability. Part of this comes from the subjective sense, long recognized by memory researchers, that we are in possession of all of our prior memories and the only barrier to having access to these memories is recall. This intuition, however, is completely wrong. Sometimes we don’t have memories because they have faded, or perhaps they were never encoded into long term memory. Memories also fuse and morph, but we have no internal mechanism for any awareness of these limitations in our memories. All we know is what we remember.

The end result of this is the notion that perhaps there are large amounts of data swimming around in our subconscious and all we have to do is tap into it. It is undoubtedly true that we do have some memories that have faded to the edge of our awareness. Sometimes these memories can be triggered by a reminder. It is also true that we are influenced by stimuli outside of our conscious awareness.

What there is no evidence for, however, is the notion that large parts of our brain are unused or untapped (sometimes stated as the claim that we only use 12% or some such figure of our brain). There is also no evidence that people can learn subconsciously or subliminally. Learning information takes conscious effort.

So if our Czech raceway driver did not suddenly start speaking English, what did happen? Well, I don’t know. There is no documentation of the event to examine. A video of Matej during this episode would be helpful but does not exist, apparently.

But I can speculate as to what might have happened. We are told that Matej himself does not remember the episode and that he was confused during the episode – aside from his new found fluency in English. His friends are the only ones who reported him speaking fluently. But we are not told if his friends are fluent in English themselves, or if they were able to hear the conversation in detail.

It is possible that Matej had what is called a fluent aphasia temporarily following the accident. In such a state he would speak in continuous unbroken prose – but the words would make little or no sense. His friends may have interpreted this speech as English. Matej may have even thrown some English words into the mix, or spoken words very reminiscent of English to a non-English speaker.

It is also possible that the reporting is simply inaccurate. Stories like this tend to take on a life of their own, they tend to morph in the details to fit with the dramatic theme of the story – they get better in the retelling. Without some objective documentation, all we have are the unverified stories of non-experts conveyed by a credulous media who is more interested in the drama than the details. So I am not ready to rewrite the neurology textbooks quite yet.

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