10 weird brain disorders

Here are 10 weird and highly specific brain conditions, and what they each show us about the human brain.

You’re used to relying on your brain. Whatever else happens, your personal lump of gray matter will take in the world, and respond to it in a fluid and predictable way. But actually, whatever your brain does is made up of many successive mental steps — and if just one of those steps fails, you’ll find yourself behaving very differently.

1. Jargonaphasia Patients Are Makeshift Gertrude Steins

This is a disorder that, in at least one of its forms, could have been lifted from an absurdist satire. No one entirely agrees on what jargonaphasia (or jargon aphasia) is. For some psychologists, it’s when a patient has lost the ability to form words entirely, and only utters a string of sounds that don’t resemble words at all.

For some it’s when patients speak words, but without any sentence structure or grammar to give them meaning. The last understanding of the term is the most interesting. Patients can be said to be suffering from jargonaphasia when they incessantly use platitudes, cliches, and pleasantries to cover the fact that they’re saying nothing.

This isn’t necessarily a contradiction; how many times in the last decade has the phrase, “Have a nice day,” conveyed any real meaning whatsoever? Stock polite terms and phrases are often the last thing that slips away from us, since we don’t put any thought into them and they become something like a reflex response.

Théophile Alajouanine, a famous French neurologist, was a leading proponent of this view of jargonaphasia. He said that ‘incomprehensibility and lack of meaning, not articulatory loss or lack of proper grammatical sequencing,’ are the hallmarks of this disorder.

Looked at like this, the disorder is jargon in the most literal sense of the word. Lose a few points of grammar and you can still make your brain and your mouth work together to communicate what you’re thinking.

Jargon is the destruction of any ability to use language to communicate, in a meaningful way, with the people around you, even if you keep talking in perfectly comprehensible English for hours.

2. Anhedonia Patients Can’t Take Pleasure in Anything

The globus pallidus is the part of the brain that regulates when we get rewarded with a little burst of pleasure chemicals. Sometimes that burst can be in response to a pleasurable event, or a reward for doing something that we deem necessary, or even just the cessation of pain.

Anhedonia happens when damage to the globus pallidus shuts off the reward system entirely. Often this is seen in recovering drug addicts – especially meth users. Sometimes strokes also do damage to the globus pallidus.

Those strokes that do hit that part of the brain are associated with greater and longer depressions than those that don’t. But anhedonia doesn’t have to be a ‘global’ response, cutting out all pleasure. It can take single pleasures away from people, too.

There was one case in which a 71-year-old musician, stopped feeling a pleasure response when he listened to music. Although he had listened to music he enjoyed before he had a small stroke, afterwards he felt no emotional response to it whatsoever.

3. Amelodia Patients Can Never Name That Tune

The most famous case of amelodia was a retired 91-year-old musicologist. He was an accomplished musician who reported to his family that he’d recently heard an angelic choir singing to him. They responded appropriately by shoving him in a cab and rushing him to the hospital so fast that they left a cartoon dust trail behind them.

At the hospital they found that he had no hearing problems, that he could, on a guitar, play many tunes from memory, that he could tell the difference between higher and lower pitched notes, and that he could easily tell the difference between discordant notes.

He just couldn’t recognize any tune played to him, no matter how simple and well-known the tune was. The ability to audibly recognize a tune, and only the tune, was gone.

4. Dysantigraphia Patients Can’t Possibly Copy Their Neighbor’s Paper

A seventy-year-old man came into the doctor’s office one day with a rather strange condition. He had suffered a stroke, and had difficulty speaking – although he could speak. He had no problems with moving his limbs. He could read and write well, as long as what he was writing was dictated to him.

When he was given a paper full of writing, and asked to copy it, he faltered after a few words, and after a line the entire process became impossible. Sadly, the man’s speech problems worsened, until any type of communication became impossible. That brief stretch of time gave doctors an interesting window into what goes on in the brain while writing.

The question has remained for years, when people read and write: Do they associate sounds with letters and words, or do they associate symbols with letters and words? When I write the word ‘cat,’ do I match the picture to a sound, the sound to symbols, and then write the symbols, or do I look at the symbols and translate them directly to meaning? This man shows that it’s both.

5. Verbal Dysdecorum Patients Can’t Censor Themselves

This syndrome was first observed in a Vietnam veteran who demonstrated exactly what happens when you don’t constantly censor yourself at your job: You get fired. You get fired over and over until finally someone sends you to a doctor.

This particular case was steered towards psychology — rather than an etiquette book — because the soldier had been shot in the head years before. The right front part of the brain has something in it that allows people to consider their words and quietly keep the socially unhelpful ones inside.

Other injuries to this area of the brain have caused similar responses. Some injuries expand beyond the verbal into actual social dysdecorum, which includes inappropriate and ill-considered actions, verging on complete sociopathy.

6. Dysmimia or Amimia Patients Don’t Know What it Means if You Give Them the Finger

Dismimia is a weirdly specific little condition. There’s no way of knowing exactly what causes it, but it stops the sufferer from understanding hand gestures or hand signals. Common gestures for ‘wait,’ ‘stop,’ or ‘sit and spin,’ are suddenly incomprehensible. These gestures are lost even if the patient previously knew their meaning.

7. Palinopsia Patients Literally Cannot Unsee Things

Palinopsia is not actually a medical disorder. It’s just the after-image that most people see after they look away from bright objects. Almost everyone reading this has experienced it. Sometimes, though, it lasts a little too long – and that is medical disorder.

A seventy-three-year-old woman attended a Christmas party the day after a very bad headache and noticed that, after she looked at a Santa Claus who was working at the party, she saw a Santa beard on everyone’s face for the rest of the party. Days later she still saw people in red Santa hats and red Santa jackets walking around the streets.

Another woman saw parts of her husband’s face superimposed on everything, or halos of light from a window spilling out the right side of people’s heads. A gameskeeper got lost one day and saw the grains he’d been throwing out for the birds near the house scattered everywhere along the unfamiliar path.

No one is sure what causes palinopsia, but medication side effects or lesions on the brain are the most likely candidates.

7. Broca’s Aphasia Patients Are Able to Do Everything But Speak

Patients with Broca’s Aphasia are able to write, to read, to listen and understand people, and are able to talk – but not able to form many coherent words. The condition is the result of an injury to Broca’s area, the patient’s ability to control what their mouths are saying goes away.

Some patients are able to manage about four words, but most lose their ability to say what they want. Occasionally, they even lose the ability to understand that they aren’t saying what they mean to say.

One of the most famous cases of this was a man who simply repeated “Tono tono tono tono tono,” to every question asked him. Although he could comprehend everything, he couldn’t make his mouth say the words he needed to respond.

9. Anosognia Patients Are Unable to Recognize Their Own Injuries

Anosognia arises in conjunction with other injuries — generally strokes and blindness. People who have lost the ability to control one half of their body will say that they just don’t want to move that part of their body. They’ll say that that half of the body is really working normally, after all.

When doctors show that it isn’t working, they’ll say that the body parts that the doctors are pointing to belong to someone else, or even that they have three hands, arms, or legs, and are moving the ones that the doctors don’t see.

There was even a case of a woman who had gone almost completely blind but insisted that she could see normally – cobbling together a ‘vision’ of what was happening around her from glimpses on the undamaged parts of her eyes, from memories, and from any sounds that she could hear around her.

10. Astasia-Abasia Patients Are Always On the Verge of Falling

Astasia-Abasia is also known as Blocq’s Disease, after Paul Blocq, the French doctor who first described it. It’s the inability to stand or walk properly, but there’s more to it.

At first, a person with this condition appears very drunk. Patients lurch when they try to stand or walk. Patients seem dangerous to themselves. They overbalance extravagantly, always catching themselves at the last moment. But that’s the condition — they always catch themselves.

People with Blocq’s Disease almost never hurt themselves. They only fall when a doctor, a loved one, or a soft place on the ground is available. Often this condition is in response to stress. The most famous case of this happened in the 1960s, when not one but two cadets at West Point came down with the condition, doctors believe as a response to the pressure of training at the prestigious school.