Man with a head injury saw the world backwards: the story of Patient M, who changed science
In 1938, one of the most amazing cases in the history of medicine took place in Spain: a man who had suffered a head injury during one of the battles of the Civil War regained consciousness and saw that the world had changed beyond recognition. The man, called Patient M, literally began to see the world backwards.
This amazing case is described in a new study published in the journal Neurology. The Spaniard's injury was the first to prompt scientists to understand that the brain is much more complex than they thought.
The first thing doctors noticed when the patient regained consciousness was that his sense of spatial orientation had changed. When someone stood to his right, it seemed to him that the person was standing to his left. But it wasn't just his eyesight that was wrong. When the person to his right started talking, he thought he heard a voice to his left. The same applied to physical sensations, such as touch.
The doctors who took care of the patient were naturally very interested in his case and conducted various tests. It turned out that he could freely read letters and numbers written both normally and backwards. At the same time, the man saw absolutely no difference between them.
Things got even more interesting when the man told the doctors that he was concerned that the men on the scaffolding were working upside down.
Something strange was happening to patient M. He saw colours coming off objects, sometimes some of the colours disappeared altogether, and the man suffered from colour blindness (the inability to distinguish between one or more colours). He also sometimes observed objects appearing in triplets.
At the same time, despite the unprecedented confusion in the work of the senses, the man felt calm.
This case was studied for almost 50 years by Spanish neuroscientist Justo Gonzalo. In the 1940s, he came to the conclusion that scientists mistakenly believed that the brain was made up of separate modules.
Observing the effects of Patient M's trauma and other amazing brain injuries, Gonzalo suggested that the brain is one, but has different functions distributed in a gradient throughout the organ. His idea ran counter to the conventional wisdom of the time, according to which the brain was seen as a small box.
Since the modular theory could not explain what was happening to patient M, Gonzalo began to develop his own theory of brain dynamics. He then realised that the effects of brain damage were likely to depend on the size and location of the injury. He also suggested that the injury does not destroy a specific brain function, but rather affects the balance of various functions. This is exactly what was observed in the case of patient M.
At the same time, the neuroscientist identified three syndromes:
- central - disturbances in various sensory organs;
- paracentral - similar to central, but with unevenly distributed effects;
- marginal - affecting brain pathways to specific senses.
A new study detailing the case of Patient M, as well as Gonzalo's work, was conducted by his daughter, Isabel Gonzalo-Fonródona, together with García Molina.
Earlier, OBOZREVATEL told the story of a woman who was dismantled and turned into a museum exhibit.