'Shadows Bright As Glass': A Brain Injury, Then Art

Shadows Bright as Glass by Amy E Nutt
 

For most of civilization, the brain was a lump of phlegm with "no more capacity for thought than a cake of suet," philosopher Henry More wrote in 1652. Our updated hunch about the origins of consciousness is now bound up in hypotheses of large-scale electrical brain networks constantly interacting within uniquely humanoid cerebral anatomy. Technology will surely continue to push neuroscience forward without historical precedent. But the brain is still so frustratingly opaque to any tool of science that the biggest insights often arrive courtesy of chance neurological disaster.

Shadows Bright as Glass
By Amy E. Nutt
Hardcover, 288 pages
Free Press
List Price: $26
Read An Excerpt

Such is the case of Jon Sarkin's brain anomaly, which Amy Ellis Nutt recounts in her mind-bending new book Shadows Bright as Glass. One morning in 1988, Sarkin, a family-loving, good-humored chiropractor, left the golf course feeling strange, a terrible chatter filling his ears. That was only the beginning. A massive post-brain surgery stroke strangled off oxygen to his cerebellum, and as soon as he opened his eyes in the hospital bed, his wife knew her husband was gone. Sarkin, surprisingly alive and functional, had suffered a brain trauma that would transform him into an eccentric and acclaimed artist — all because a tiny nerve in his skull had snapped out of place.

As Sarkin's healing brain began to reorganize, he became, Nutt writes, "like a man watching a parade, unable to make out the music of the band passing by because it was already mingling with the tune of the one approaching." He was a living lesson in right brain–left brain function. His right hemisphere excelled at creating novel, artistic patterns out of randomness, but struggled to fill in a new autobiographical storyline without the analytics and categorization supplied by the left hemisphere — rich material for Nutt's stated quest to explore mind, brain and self through the aftermath of neurological injury.

Amy Ellis Nutt was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for her series "The Accidental Artist," which is the basis for Shadows Bright as Glass. She writes for the Newark Star-Ledger and lives in Watchung, N.J.

Amy Ellis Nutt was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for her series "The Accidental Artist," which is the basis for Shadows Bright as Glass. She writes for the Newark Star-Ledger and lives in Watchung, N.J.   hide caption

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The strength of Shadows Bright as Glass is in its deliberate, alternating structure. Nutt shuttles back and forth between real-time scenes of Sarkin's life, and chapters devoted to the neuroscience of perception and creativity, and music and memory; extraordinary cases of savants and split-brain patients; and her own philosophical reflections on these phenomena. The challenging material is never far from hitting home. At one point, she reminds us that we are all one whack to the left temple away from being savants ourselves.

A skilled science writer, Nutt renders complex subject matter accessible to any interested reader through a seamless integration of explanation and storytelling. She doles out the science in good measure, never burying and always enriching the poignant human story.

We are only as real as our brains are intact. And yet, as Nutt reminds us, the mind is more than the brain, created at the dynamic interface between self and other, invented through extended interactions with people and objects. But can science effectively illuminate something so nuanced? The question of how to measure subjective phenomena is arguably the biggest one facing social cognitive neuroscience today. Nutt's medical narrative offers a tantalizing solution to this challenge — that the self-shattering results of brain damage can divulge clues to the ancient mysteries of human experience.

Genevieve Wanucha is a freelance writer living in Boston. She is currently at work on a book about the science of social interaction for Free Press of Simon & Schuster.

Excerpt: 'Shadows Bright As Glass'

Shadows Bright as Glass
 
Shadows Bright as Glass
By Amy E. Nutt
Hardcover, 288 pages
Free Press
List Price: $26

The swirling waters along the North Shore of Boston are anchored by a geography of grief: Great Misery Island, Cripple Cove, the reef of Norman's Woe. Jon Sarkin is comfortable in this landscape, shaped as it is by loss. Centuries of women and children have waited on its rocky promontories for husbands and sons and fathers who never came home. Just west of Ten Pound Island, the Annisquam River empties into the Atlantic, watched over by the ghosts of Gloucester. In this colonial fishing village the sunlight still tastes of brine, and the oldest homes bear plaques inscribed with the names of Gloucestermen long dead: Colonel Joseph Foster, a veteran of the Revolution, who smuggled goods into Massachusetts during the British blockade of New England's harbors; Captain Harvey Coffin Mackay, whose sloop was struck by lightning and sank on its way to England in 1830; and the Luminist painter Fitz Hugh Lane, who immortalized that seafaring tragedy months later in his watercolor The Burning of the Packet Ship Boston.

For ages, artists have been summoned here by the views of ships' masts tangling in the harbor and Creamsicle-colored sunsets melting on the rocks. Winslow Homer visited and painted his Boy on the Rocks. Rudyard Kipling vacationed and wrote Captains Courageous, and when Longfellow stopped for a look, he penned "The Wreck of the Hesperus."

And ever the fitful gusts between

A sound came from the land;

It was the sound of the trampling surf,

On the rocks and hard sea-sand.

A hundred years after Longfellow, T. S. Eliot remembered his childhood summers in Gloucester and wrote about the dangerous rocks hidden beneath the harbor's waves in his Four Quartets.

The river is within us, the

sea is all about us;

The sea is the land's edge also

Art did not lure Jon Sarkin here, but it saved him. When he first arrived thirty years ago, he was a young, ambitious chiropractor intent on building a career. That was before his future slipped away from him, before a tiny blood vessel deep in his brain inexplicably shifted a hundredth of an inch, and as quickly as the flap of a butterfly's wing, set off a wave of events that altered him body and soul. A single cruel trick of nature, a catastrophic stroke, and a quiet, sensible man was transformed into an artist with a ferocious need to create.

For nearly two decades, he toiled in his studio painting and drawing without forethought or expectation, without plan or picture in his head, producing a storm of art that slowly increased in complexity and quality.

Yet always there was this question: Who was he? How had he gotten to this place? He was that rarest of individuals, a man dislocated from his own sense of self, a man who knew his brain had betrayed him and cast him out to sea. Recovered, it was as if he'd washed up on some alien shore, and he questioned who, and what, he was. How does a soul start over?

Nearly two thousand years ago, Plutarch asked the same question and was left puzzled. He wrote about a great ship that hardworking Athenians replaced plank by plank as the ship decayed until there was nothing left of the original. What was it now? Was it the same ship? Plutarch wondered. Or was it something wholly new?

Sarkin's body was broken, his brain dislocated. Parts of him were missing and others unrecognizably changed. He knew it, felt it deeply and yet could not explain how or why even to himself. To truly understand what had happened, he would have to be both subject and object, actor as well as audience. He was, in a way, his own philosophy experiment: How many pieces could be removed and replaced, without him becoming a different man?

This was a question the Ancients pondered, but neuroscientists now try to resolve as they search for the sources of consciousness. Sarkin, though, was an unwitting participant. Dislodged from himself, he had no choice but to find a way back in. He understood exquisitely, painfully, in a way few individuals can, that when the rock of his identity cracked, it let loose his own unsuspecting soul.

The patient blinked, wide-awake, as the surgeon peeled back the outer covering of the man's brain and began looking for the tumor.

"Soon, you'll be back on the ward," said one of the nurses in the operating room at the Cardiff, Wales, Royal Infirmary.

"Thank you, I feel fine," the man answered, his scalp numbed only by a local anesthetic.

The year was 1938 and the forty-one-year-old neurosurgeon, Lambert Rogers, had no MRI, not even a microscope, to locate his patient's brain tumor, just his probing fingers. After cutting through the transparent "skin" of the dura mater, the tough outer covering of the brain, Rogers plunged his hand into the soft, wet folds of the man's gray matter and began exploring. Half an hour went by. Then an hour. The surgeon rummaged through the three-pound gelatinous mass like a blind man slogging through a swamp.

Christ, there are still two more patients to go, thought Wilfred Abse, the young intern assisting Rogers. Abse was a twenty-three-year-old psychiatrist-in-training, impatient to finish his long day. He also knew time was running out for the patient on the table. Abse had never seen a living human brain before, but as he watched Rogers poke and prod, each unsuccessful foray seemed to mutilate more of the poor man's brain tissue. Nearly two hours into the operation, his blood pressure dropped precipitously and he lost consciousness. If Rogers didn't find the tumor soon, he would have to sew the man back up. Still, he pressed on, the light from the small lamp strapped to his forehead illuminating the oozing pink and gray brain inside his patient's skull. What happened next Abse never forgot and often told his family about, as if still amazed after all the intervening years. The patient, who had been unresponsive for some time, suddenly cried out in a voice that seemed more mechanical than human:

"You sod, leave my soul alone. Leave . . . my . . . soul . . . alone."

Excerpted from Shadows Bright as Glass by Amy E Nutt. Copyright 2011 by Amy E Nutt. Excerpted by permission of Free Press. All rights reserved.

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Shadows Bright As Glass

The Remarkable Story of One Man's Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph

by Amy Ellis Nutt

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