Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Naming The Neurological Disorder


My friend and neighbor Barbara B., who occasionally kindly drops comments on the threads here, has been giving me her previous weeks' copies of The New Yorker (and New York Review of Books, and Harper's, and... Barbara knows I like to read). Today I read an article by Oliver Sacks called A Man of Letters, about some of the neurological problems occurring after a stroke, having to do with the patient's attempts at reading. I've seen a lot of things this week that look like what one patient described as "... Cyrillic one moment and Korean the next. Was this a Serbo-Croation version of the Globe, made for export? ..." But as far as I can tell, unlike that patient, I have not had a stroke; rather, I've been looking at a lot of pages of interesting character sets set in even more interesting typefaces... perhaps "Cyrillic one moment, and Korean the next," for all I know. (See the immediately preceding post.)

But I'd like to focus for a moment on two related events from 1887 regarding a man who did have a stroke and suffered alexia (hmmm... I think I went out with her once). An abstract online of Sacks's article is provided by The New Yorker; the quote below is from the full paper edition:


In 1887, the French neurologist Joseph Jules Dejerine was asked by an ophthalmologist colleague, Edmund Landolt, to see a highly intelligent, cultivated man, Oscar C., who had suddenly lost the ability to read. Landolt wrote a short but vividly evocative portrait of the patient, and Dejerine, in his own paper on the subject, included a long excerpt from it.

... [many long paragraphs snipped]

When Oscar C. died, following a second stroke, Dejerine performed an autopsy and found two lesions in the brain: a recent one, which had probably caused his death, and an older one, which had destroyed part of the left occipital lobe and which he presumed was responsible for C.'s alexia. ...


And thus we have the expression, "French foreign lesion" ... <grin_duck_run />


  1. Absolutely, positively a Five Groan!

  2. Bryan, the article is fascinating, worth buying the magazine to read. (Thanks, Barbara!) Sacks's thesis is that, since recognition of written or printed text was not a product of evolution (like, e.g., recognition of faces or of dangerous critters), it must be that human character recognition co-opts those existing mechanisms... by designing characters that in some ways trigger it. I've been looking at those 64k characters in Unicode; Sacks would assert (I believe) that there is less variety among them than one might think, because they have all come into being (well, most of them) since the advent of human literacy, i.e., in the past 5000 or so years.

  3. (I said "most of them" because some of them aren't really written characters... e.g., Mah Jongg tiles and playing card faces. Those could have been invented prior to the beginning of literacy.)



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