Written by Rachael Cheeseman
Alright, before we get started, I just have to say that I have no intention of making light of anyone's suffering. This isn't about making fun of anyone who might suffer from any of these disorders. What I'm interested in is the complex and fragile nature of the human brain and the downright bizarre consequences when something in this delicate system goes wrong. With that in mind, here are some of the more peculiar neurological disorders you've probably never heard of.
You may actually know this one if you're an avid fan of Oliver Sacks or of long forgotten American sitcom 'Ally McBeal' (it was the subject of episode 11 season 5. Don't ask me why I know that #AllyMcbealrocks). Prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, is an obscure condition whereby a person will be incapable of recognising faces and will instead confuse people for inanimate objects. There is nothing wrong with their ability to see, and the brain is perfectly capable of processing all other visual information. But when it comes to putting all the features of a person's face together they draw a blank, so instead the brain assigns the only meaning it can to make sense of the stimulus, and tells the person they are looking at an object. The disorder is believed to result from damage to the fusiform gyrus which is active during facial recognition and allows for the processing of more complex visual information. Oliver Sacks' book 'The man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat' contains a case study of this disorder that was later adapted for the stage as an opera. Seriously, Michael Nyman made an opera about prosopagnosia based on this case study. That really happened.
2. Capgras Delusion
Alright Alice, we're really down the rabbit hole now and things are going to get curiouser and curiouser. If you thought perceiving people as inanimate objects was strange, how about a condition where you see someone, recognise them as a close friend or relative but wholeheartedly believe that they are not who they say they are and are, in fact, an imposter. (Oddly, this one has appeared in an American sitcom too. I feel a conspiracy theory coming on. It featured asa subplot in 'Scrubs' episode 13, season 8).
This belief that some of your nearest and dearest have been replaced with identical imposters is understandably distressing, not just for those who suffer from the delusion but also for the loved ones who are being held at arms length and regarded with suspicion and mistrust. Some sufferers have also been reported to believe that time itself has been warped or displaced somehow, as if the whole thing wasn't disconcerting enough already. What's more, the disorder is also notoriously difficult to treat. Although there's no cure, there are treatments that can help with the stress and paranoia associated with such delusions. However, patients may think their doctors are actually doppelgängers, and refuse to follow advice or take medicine given to them because they believe the imposter is attempting to deceive or harm them in some way.
It probably won't surprise you to hear that Capgras delusion is often seen in conjunction with conditions such as paranoid schizophrenia, dementia or other neurodegenerative disorders.
3. Wernicke's Aphasia
Alright, thinking hats on, pencil's poised, here comes a quick neurology lesson. Ahem...Wernicke's area, named after German neurologist Carl Wernicke, is located in the posterior third of the upper temporal region of the left hemisphere of the brain. (cue pushing glasses up bridge of nose and sniffing haughtily). That's a fancy way of saying it's near the auditory cortex. The area has been found to play a key role in the comprehension of language and damage to this region of the brain can cause a condition known as Wernicke's aphasia. The condition renders the sufferer incapable of understanding language. They know words and can produce speech but not with any meaning and they can't understand what's spoken to them. Then there's also a condition that's the exact reverse of this, called Broca's aphasia, whereby the ability to comprehend speech is unaffected but the ability to produce speech is severely impaired and sometimes non-existent. Scary stuff, right?
The inability to use or understand hand gestures. That may not sound like a huge deal at first, but take a moment to really think about it. Not understanding that a wave means hello, not knowing the universal gesture for stop, never being able to understand Daniel Sloss' salt shaker joke (it's hilarious, look it up).
Relatively little is known about this disorder, it has some tenuous links to certain medications and has been observed in those who suffer damage to the right hemisphere of the brain, as well as being linked to conditions that impair memory such as Korsakoff syndrome.
Some people who suffer from amimia also report an inability to interpret facial expressions. Considering just how much of our communication is non-verbal a condition like amimia is no small matter.
Picturing things in your minds eye is literally one of the best things ever. I don't know where I'd be if I couldn't instantly summon topless Ryan Reynolds into my daydreams (he's topless because he's pitching in with the decorating and didn't want to get his clothes dirty. Get your mind out of the gutter). So, I can't even comprehend a world where conjuring mental pictures is an impossibility. But that's the reality for individuals suffering from aphantasia. Although not yet technically recognised as neurological disorder, there are more and more people reporting to suffer from this peculiar phenomenon.
The condition was first described by Francis Galton in 1880 and has cropped up in anecdotal evidence here and there ever since. At this time, there is no obvious cause of the condition. Some individuals appear to be born with it and others claim to develop it after experiencing some kind of trauma, such as a stroke.
From interviews and case studies we do know that sufferers of aphantasia tend to have poor memories and can struggle with facial recognition due to their inability to visualise.
Now, this is one I've personally experienced and I can tell you it's extremely weird. Having phantosmia means you can smell things that aren't really there. It's also referred to as an olfactory hallucination. It can be very unsettling to be able to smell something (usually an unpleasant smell. for me, it's almost always boiled cabbage) and know that even though it's so strong your eyes are watering, no one else can smell a damn thing.
There are some non-neurological causes for phantosmia, such as nasal infections, nasal polyps or exposure to certain chemicals such as insecticides or solvents. However it can also come about as a result of conditions such as epilepsy or Parkinson's, where the problem lies within the brain itself. Phantosmia is usually associated with activity in the temporal lobe being stimulated without reason, like during a seizure or due to a growth in this region. Whatever the cause, it's an unnerving experience.
So that's a small glimpse into the weirdest neurological disorders, and it really is just the tip of the iceberg. We didn't even get into things like Cotard's syndrome (also known as walking corpse syndrome) or alien hand syndrome or hemispatial neglect or...there really are too many to mention. Our brains are such complex, delicate structures, it is literally quite terrifying when you realise just how many things can go horribly wrong. If you don't want to spend the rest of your life scared to move and with pillows and bubble wrap strapped around your head, it may be best not to dwell on it too much.