- The reason for my apparently absurd question is the remarkable
research conducted at the University of Sheffield by neurology professor
the late Dr. John Lorber.
- When Sheffield's campus doctor was treating one of the
mathematics students for a minor ailment, he noticed that the student's
head was a little larger than normal. The doctor referred the student to
professor Lorber for further examination.
- The student in question was academically bright, had
a reported IQ of 126 and was expected to graduate. When he was examined
by CAT-scan, however, Lorber discovered that he had virtually no brain
- Instead of two hemispheres filling the cranial cavity,
some 4.5 centimetres deep, the student had less than 1 millimetre of cerebral
tissue covering the top of his spinal column. The student was suffering
from hydrocephalus, the condition in which the cerebrospinal fluid, instead
of circulating around the brain and entering the bloodstream, becomes dammed
- Normally, the condition is fatal in the first months
of childhood. Even where an individual survives he or she is usually seriously
handicapped. Somehow, though, the Sheffield student had lived a perfectly
normal life and went on to gain an honours degree in mathematics. This
case is by no means as rare as it seems. In 1970, a New Yorker died at
the age of 35. He had left school with no academic achievements, but had
worked at manual jobs such as building janitor, and was a popular figure
in his neighbourhood. Tenants of the building where he worked described
him as passing the days performing his routine chores, such as tending
the boiler, and reading the tabloid newspapers. When an autopsy was performed
to determine the cause of his premature death he, too, was found to have
practically no brain at all. Professor Lorber has identified several hundred
people who have very small cerebral hemispheres but who appear to be normal
intelligent individuals. Some of them he describes as having 'no detectable
brain', yet they have scored up to 120 on IQ tests.
- No-one knows how people with 'no detectable brain' are
able to function at all, let alone to graduate in mathematics, but there
are a couple theories. One idea is that there is such a high level of redundancy
of function in the normal brain that what little remains is able to learn
to deputise for the missing hemispheres.
- Another, similar, suggestion is the old idea that we
only use a small percentage of our brains anyway-perhaps as little as 10
per cent. The trouble with these ideas is that more recent research seems
to contradict them. The functions of the brain have been mapped comprehensively
and although there is some redundancy there is also a high degree of specialisation-the
motor area and the visual cortex being highly specific for instance. Similarly,
the idea that we 'only use 10 per cent of our brain' is a misunderstanding
dating from research in the 1930s in which the functions of large areas
of the cortex could not be determined and were dubbed 'silent', when in
fact they are linked with important functions like speech and abstract
- The other interesting thing about Lorber's findings is
that they remind us of the mystery of memory. At first it was thought that
memory would have some physical substrate in the brain, like the memory
chips in a PC. But extensive investigation of the brain has turned up the
surprising fact that memory is not located in any one area or in a specific
substrate. As one eminent neurologist put it, 'memory is everywhere in
the brain and nowhere.' But if the brain is not a mechanism for classifying
and storing experiences and analysing them to enable us to live our lives
then what on earth is the brain for? And where is the seat of human intelligence?
Where is the mind?
- One of the few biologists to propose a radically novel
approach to these questions is Dr Rupert Sheldrake. In his book A New Science
of Life Sheldrake rejected the idea that the brain is a warehouse for memories
and suggested it is more like a radio receiver for tuning into the past.
Memory is not a recording process in which a medium is altered to store
records, but a journey that the mind makes into the past via the process
of morphic resonance. Such a 'radio' receiver would require far fewer
and less complex structures than a warehouse capable of storing and retrieving
a lifetime of data.
- But, of course, such a crazy idea couldn't possibly be
true, could it?