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No. 84: Nov-Dec 1992

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THE WOMAN WHO COULDN'T DESCRIBE ANIMALS

The astounding complexity of the human brain was underscored recently by a 70-year-old woman, who could describe anything she saw except animals. The woman had an immune-system disorder that had damaged a small portion of her brain's temporal lobe. Her other mental faculties were intact.

"The woman could name plants, foods, and inanimate objects and describe them without hesitation. The scientists were impressed that when shown a trellis, not exactly your everyday object, she could correctly name it and describe its cross-hatched geometry.

"But when shown a squirrel or a dog, she froze. She couldn't find the right name for either, nor could she describe their size or shape or furry coats.

"Her deficit, involving only a tiny portion of her language skills, was amazingly narrow."

(Bor, Jonathan; "The Woman Who Couldn't Describe Animals," Baltimore Sun, p. A1, September 7, 1992.)

The implications of this strange case were described in Science News:

"The peculiar inability of a 70-yearold woman to name animals has led scientists to propose that the brain harbors separate knowledge systems, one visual, the other verbal or language-based, for different categories of living and inanimate things, such as animals and household objects."

(Bower, B.; "Clues to the Brain's Knowledge Systems," Science News, 142:148, 1992.)

Comment. Experiments with animals suggest that the brain's memory is "distributed"; that is, like a hologram, both nowhere and everywhere. Also, it may not be pertinent, but R.O. Becker, in SF#81, hypothesized that the brain utilizes two modes of communication, one digital, the other analog.

From Science Frontiers #84, NOV-DEC 1992. 1992-2000 William R. Corliss