Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Reading: The Man with a Shattered World

The Man with a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound
By A.R. Luria

A.R. Luria led an interesting life: he was an early member of the Vygotsky Circle, conducted an early cross-cultural psychology study, invented an early version of the lie detector, and became a leader in neuropsychology. Like many in psychology, he published relatively little during the Stalin years, then became prolific once Stalin died. Among his works is this one, written for an international lay audience.

I won't go deeply into this story, which is of a Russian army officer who sustained a gunshot to his head while fighting the Nazis. The resulting wound to the posterior parieto-occipital regions of the brain meant that he had extreme trouble combining his sensory impressions into a coherent whole: "He is aware of his own body and senses both his arms and his legs, though he cannot tell his right from his left" (p.31). He loses the ability to read, to write, to locate parts of his own body, to recognize his own hometown.

Much of the book details his struggle to rehabilitate—in his own words. One day, the officer discovered that if he looked away from the paper and just attempted to write a word—rather than spell it out—he often could. As Luria says, "For adults, writing is an automatic skill, a series of built-in movements which I call 'kinetic melodies'"—that is, operations in the parlance of activity theory (p.72). The officer still had those "kinetic melodies" and could invoke them. And over the rest of his life, the officer wrote over a thousand pages: rarely more than a page a day, and in a script that he himself was almost unable to read.

Luria expresses admiration for this officer and his attempts at self-rehabilitiation, which paid off enough for him to tell his story. But he also uses the case to lucidly explain the effects of such a brain injury. If you're interested in neuropsychology, or if you're just interested in how complex our perception is and how easily it can be shattered, take a look.

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