Stranger In A Strange Land

I suspect there are two different responses to the Gifford shooting, two different ways of thinking about her prognosis, depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, lack or possess a vivid imagination, believe in miracles, or not. The reality is surprisingly in-between-ish.

The main things are, she didn’t bleed to death, and the bullet did not reach the parts of the brain which control autonomic functions like breathing. It was apparently confined to one side of the neocortex. If you are a materialist, you might think that this much damage to the brain has to be annihilating; if you aren’t, you might imagine that she will substantially recover. But the truth is that the bilateral structure of the brain entails that some functions are redundantly distributed to both hemispheres and some aren’t. For decades, hemispherectomy, the removal of a lateral half of a brain, has been performed as a treatment for epilepsy, and the bottom line is, you can do remarkably well with only half a brain. There seems to be very little evidence that personality, sense of self, emotion, etc. are affected. This bodes well: the person that is Gabby Giffords will survive.

The flipside is, not all functions are redundantly distributed. Motor control of the right side of the body is controlled by the left side of the brain, as is vision from the right eye. Giffords may end up impaired or partially paralyzed on the right half of her body, and blind in her right eye. Perhaps worst of all for a politician, which is to say, someone who loves to talk with the whole of their being, linguistic functions are specialized to the hemispheres in various ways such that aspects of speech may never return. Depending upon the extent of the damage, she may lose the capacity to understand language altogether. I do not think this means that she would lose all distinctively human qualities. I think this would be like spending the rest of your life in a foreign country, with no phone, no email, no friends, no books. I cannot imagine a more lonely existence.

When my father was headed into surgery for cancer in his neck, he said “if you have to remove my tongue, don’t bother; I’d rather be dead than not be able to speak.” If one were to add to that the capacity to listen and read, yes, that would be my call as well. Let us hope that this is not what is in store for her.

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