Excerpted from the book: The Brain That Changes Itself
Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science
By Norman Doidge, MD, Penguin Publishing, December, 2007
Alexander Luria was born in Kazan, Russia in 1902. He’s considered the father of modern neuropsychology. This branch of psychology found its foundation thanks to his research, leading to the conclusion that the brain is the source of behavior.
Instead of considering that the mind was fragmented, Luria and his teacher Lev Vygotsky considered the brain as a whole. They claimed that the parts of the brain were related and that its functions were never isolated or lodged in specific areas. These ideas countered the ideas of other important researchers such as Paul Broca or Karl Wernicke.
In one of Luria's books, The Man with a Shattered World, he tells the tragic yet enlightening story of Lyova Zazetsky.
At the end of May 1943 Comrade Lyova Zazetsky, just 23 years old, came to Luria's office in the rehabilitation hospital where he was working. Zazetsky was a young Russian lieutenant who had just been injured in the battle of Smolensk, where poorly equipped Russians had been thrown against the invading Nazi war machine. He had sustained a bullet wound to the head, with massive damage on the left side, deep inside his brain.
For a long time, he lay in a coma. When Zazetsky awoke, his symptoms were very odd. The shrapnel had lodged in the part of the brain that helped him understand relationships between symbols. He could no longer understand logic, cause and effect, or spatial relationships. He couldn't distinguish his left from his right.
He couldn't understand the elements of grammar dealing with relationships. Prepositions such as "in," "out," "before," "after," "with," and 'without" had become meaningless to him. He couldn't comprehend a whole word, understand a whole sentence, or recall a complete memory because doing any of those things would require relating symbols. He could grasp only fleeting fragments.
Yet his frontal lobes — which allowed him to seek out what is relevant and to plan, strategize, form intentions, and pursue them — were spared, so he had the capacity to recognize his defects, and the wish to overcome them. Though he could not read, which is largely a perceptual activity, he could write, because it is an intentional one. He began a fragmentary diary he called I'll Fight On that swelled to three thousand pages.
"I was killed March 2, 1943," he wrote, "but because of some vital power of my organism, I miraculously remained alive."
Over thirty years Luria observed him and reflected on the way Zazetsky's wound affected his mental activities, He would witness Zazetsky's relentless fight "to live, not merely exist."
While watching a film, Zazetsky wrote, "before I've had a chance to figure out what the actors are saying, a new scene begins."
Luria began to make sense of the problem. Zazetsky's bullet had lodged in the left hemisphere, at the junction of three major perceptual areas where the temporal lobe (which normally processes sound and language), the occipital lobe (which normally processes visual images), and the parietal lobe (which normally processes spatial relationships and integrates information from different senses) meet.
At this junction perceptual input from those three areas is brought together and associated. While Zazetsky could perceive properly, Luria realized he could not relate his different perceptions, or parts of things to wholes. Most important, he had great difficulty relating a number of symbols to one another, as we normally do when we think with words. Thus, Zazetsky often spoke in malapropisms.
If this post strikes a chord with you, we take brain plasticity possibilities a step further in Impossible Dream, the extraordinary story of triumph over disability told from the first-person perspective of a young woman living with autism.