The brain is our most enigmatic organ. It has made humanity capable of amazing technological feats, yet at the same time it’s responsible for our worst atrocities. But the brain is also mysterious simply for its strangeness—and for the bizarre behavior it can produce.
The peculiarities of the brain are evident in everyday life. Our brains—far from the highly efficient machines we like to believe they are—often cause us to do things that some part of us doesn’t really want to do, like have another cookie while we’re on a diet or drink an extra cup of coffee that’s bound to make us jittery. They afflict us with thoughts of worry and anxiety that we sometimes can’t get out of our heads—even if we know those thoughts are baseless. And they take us on emotional rollercoasters of sadness, happiness, anger, and more, sometimes without clear reasons why.
But the odd nature of these everyday behaviors is overshadowed by the strangeness that emerges from some disruption to typical brain function, such as what can happen after a stroke, traumatic brain injury, or due to the influence of a disease or disorder. Take, for example, the condition known as Capgras syndrome. In Capgras syndrome, patients develop the belief that those close to them have been replaced by imposters—people who look and act just like their spouse, children, or friends, but really are not. In other words, these patients believe in a veritable Invasion of the Body Snatchers reality. The first description of someone with Capgras syndrome involved a woman who was convinced her daughter had been kidnapped and replaced by an imposter. But it didn’t end there; the woman also believed her husband had been murdered, and an imposter had taken his place. The police force was inept at tracking down the murderer because they were all imposters as well.
Capgras syndrome is just one example of the many conditions that can so severely disrupt brain function that it’s difficult for most of us to imagine living under the influence of the resulting delusions. In another disorder called clinical lycanthropy, people develop the belief they have transformed into another animal. While clinical lycanthropy is rare, over 50 cases have been documented since the middle of the 1800s of individuals believing they could turn into cats, dogs, wolves, cows, horses, frogs, bees, snakes, geese, and even a gerbil (among others). One 24-year-old man was admitted to a psychiatric institution after spending the previous 13 years convinced he was a cat. He claimed he could communicate with cats (indeed, his own cat had taught him “cat language”) and he spent all of his time with cats—hunting, playing, and unfortunately even engaging in sexual relationships with them.
While conditions like Capgras syndrome and clinical lycanthropy can be mind-boggling, or even disturbing, sometimes the brain does unusual things that are more worthy of wonder and amazement. Take Kim Peek as an example. Peek was born with a collection of physical and mental deficits that interfered with his ability to communicate, move around independently, and perform daily tasks like brushing his teeth or buttoning his shirt. But from a very early age, he began displaying prodigious mental capabilities in specific areas. His ability to memorize things that he read, for example, emerged as an exceptional skill by age 6 and continued to develop as he got older. By the time he died in 2009 at the age of 58, he had memorized more than 12,000 books. This gave him encyclopedic knowledge in a variety of subjects, including classical music, sports, literature, American history, geography, and more. How did he even read (much less memorize) 12,000 books, you might ask? He also had an uncanny ability to speed read; he could read a page of text in 8-10 seconds while memorizing all the information on it. Eventually, he was even able to read (and memorize) the right and left pages of a book at the same time (using his right and left eyes independently).
Kim Peek was a savant—someone with exceptional skills in one area, often despite other impairments. In most cases, savant skills appear gradually with age. But other savants develop their skills suddenly—typically after some brain injury or disease. This is known as acquired savant syndrome, and it’s incredibly rare; there are only around 30 documented cases. Derek Amato, for example, experienced a traumatic brain injury at the age of 39 and awoke to learn he had the skills of a professional pianist—despite never practicing a day in his life. Acquired savant syndrome begs the question: if these capabilities can emerge in certain individuals, does it suggest they are latent within all of us? Some savant researchers believe they are.
While savant syndrome appears to be very different from the other conditions I’ve discussed in this article, one thing it has in common with them is that it underscores how much we still have to learn about the brain. These unusual conditions leave neuroscientists searching for answers, and even the most widely supported explanations are still somewhat preliminary. Only when we can explain how the same organ can cause one person to believe they have turned into an animal and another to develop remarkable abilities out of the blue can we say with any confidence that we understand the puzzle of the brain.
To read more about the strangest behavior to emerge from the brain, check out my new book: https://www.amazon.com/Bizarre...