Civil Servant With No Brain Explained

Occasionally I have seen various papers, blog posts, and comments referencing the famous 44 year French civil servant who lives a normal life seemingly without a brain. Sometimes the writers demand an explanation from consciousness theories. Other times arguments are made that substantial parts of mental processing must actually be occurring outside the brain (in the ether or mind at large, I suppose). The case was reported in The Lancet originally and was accompanied by this image of a brain scan.

The patient suffers from non-communicating hydrocephalus that likely has developed over the course of many years. The man is not missing a cortex. Rather the cortex has been compressed into a thin sheet.

A paper in 2018 Revisiting Paradoxical Situations Associated with Hydrocephalus explains how people with hydrocephalus can seemingly have normal brain functions.

Presumably, functioning of the neural network of the brain does not depend on the volume of fluid that surrounds its structures provided that certain physical parameters are met. The main requirement is that the behavior of this fluid does not interfere with the function of the brain structures, including the cortical neural network.

If the behavior of cerebrospinal fluid in a hydrocephalic subject meets all three conditions, that is constancy of velocity, normal cerebrocranial pressure, and comparatively low density (in the range of 1.003–1.008 g/mL) of the fluid (or specific weight, which is the same), then the overfilling of the brain with CSF does not limit the efficient functioning of all parts of the brain, including the cortex. This explains the fact that the patients with hydrocephalus who meet these conditions can exist and develop normally.

What cases like this and others tell us is that the brain is very flexible. It can function in a variety of shapes and forms. It can compensate for damages and defects within a fairly wide range. That is amazing but by itself doesn’t present any special paradox to brain and mind theories.

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8 Responses to Civil Servant With No Brain Explained

  1. jim- says:

    This made me wonder if this is how Pat Rummersfield functions, outside his brain, perhaps? He is the only known fully functioning quadriplegic.


  2. Given how skimpy the original source was on information, I’ve always been leery of this case. The Neuroskeptic analyzed it a few years ago, just looking at the imagery, and noted that the cortex was definitely present, although the state of the white matter was obscured. Good to know someone finally revisited the details.

    Definitely the brain is very flexible and adaptive, particularly if injury happens early or gradually.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. That all sounds reasonable to me. There should be an evolved plasticity to the brain so that this biological computer doesn’t fail quite as often under adverse conditions such as this. Conversely our computers shouldn’t have such plasticity given that they’re engineered by us. When something breaks you either fix it or get a new computer.

    That paper isn’t open to me though I’m curious about this guy’s situation in a psychological sense. Do you know much about that James?

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Cross says:

      Not sure what you mean by “not open” to you. It is an article in The Lancet and I don’t have any special subscription but opens up fine. The article is very sparse. The person has a family, normal social interaction, and an IQ in a normal range but not brilliant. It seems the condition developed over years so he probably has a somewhat normal brain earlier in life that gradually deformed in shape over time.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Travis R says:

    Does this weigh in favor of connectionism and against EM field theories of consciousness? A compressed brain would have the same network, but the spatial relationships for an EM field would be very different, and if the compression was changing those spatial relationships over time independently of brain function, you would expect that to significantly alter conscious experience under EM theory.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Cross says:

      Good point and it did occur to me. A couple of thoughts.

      Some argue that the main seat of consciousness is lower down in the brain and I’m not sure that would be affected by this condition. Second, a lot depends upon how the EM field spreads across the brain. In other words, I assume the layers of the cortex and the mini-columns are still lined up much like they would be in a normal brain. They have just been squeezed outward. So the basic structure and interaction between the circuits and the EM field would still be relatively the same, although somewhat contorted. This might be especially the case if various theories about the L5 pyramidal neurons and their dendrites are where a lot of this is happening. Finally, since we can’t look into the subjective state of the individual, his consciousness really might be different but still functional.

      As a side note, I have been pondering various ideas that might be relevant. These ideas have little or no support but I’m not sure anybody has actually looked at them. In an abbreviated form, it is something like this.

      The pyramidal neurons (with possible analogs in other species) have dual major functions. One is they function like other neurons of the brain and with various specializations in different areas. Secondarily, they act like sensory neurons. They behave somewhat like the ampullae of Lorenzini that sharks use for sensing electric fields. These sensing organs function by detecting differences between the external and internal fields. In this case, the pyramidal neurons are detecting the differences between the lower parts of the brain and the surface of the cortex. The “feeling” of consciousness is actually this detection.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Feeling Neurons? | Broad Speculations

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