The President’s Speech

the man who mistook his wife for a hat

I have been reading Oliver Sacks’ book The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and his observations are thought-provoking. In particular, in the chapter The President’s Speech, he described patients who had aphasia as they watched the President speaking. Although many of them could not understand the words the President was saying, they were in fits of laughter. What could they be laughing at?

Sacks went on to talk about how speech consists not just of words but also tones and varying cadences. Add nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions and hand gestures, and you have a variety of ways to express yourself, both voluntarily and involuntarily. He suspected that it would be hard to lie to someone who has aphasia (I presume he meant those with Wernicke’s or global aphasia where they have difficulty understanding words) as they are able pick up on these involuntary nuances of communication that are hard to fake, unlike words. Because they cannot understand words, they develop this ability to understand the tones/expressions that come with the words. He suggests that perhaps they were laughing at the President’s speech because it was so obvious for them, based on his false cadences, tones, and gestures, that his speech was not authentic.

Sacks then talked about another patient who had the opposite problem – she could only understand words and could not differentiate tones. To compensate, she had to focus more on their nonverbal communication…until her eyesight started fading. Then she focused even more on the words one used to speak, encouraging others to use words in a way so that the words conveyed meaning (proper ‘prose’) rather than relying on tones/expressions to convey meaning. She was also not impressed by the President’s speech. ‘He is not cogent,’ she said. ‘He does not speak good prose. His word-use is improper. Either he is brain-damaged, or he has something to conceal.’

And finally, he ends the chapter with:
Here then was the paradox of the President’s speech. We normals – aided, doubtless, by our wish to be fooled, were indeed well and truly fooled. And so cunningly was deceptive word-use combined with deceptive tone, that only the brain-damaged remained intact, undeceived.
I think what I learned most from reading this chapter and this article about how he introduced the world to autism, is that humans have a beautiful way of making the most of what we have. For everything that is lost (e.g. ability to understand words), there is something else to be gained (e.g. deeper understanding of tones and cadence). Often we hear about this with people who lose their eyesight but improve their hearing dramatically. The brain is wonderfully plastic.
“19th Century neurology was largely based on lesions and agnosias and all the things that can go missing or wrong” in the brain, Sacks explained. “But I’ve always been more interested — in both in a neurological way and a human way — in what is spared or enhanced.”
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