Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Foreign Accent Syndrome: Brain Damage or Possession?

So here's the thing: there is something called foreign language syndrome, or foreign accent syndrome. It happens only rarely, and documented cases are few. Not so long ago there was an instance in Queensland, Australia, and it was reported on TV a few days ago. This was the first time I heard about it. So I went and looked it up on the Internet, and found quite a few references.

By and large it appears that even though people have a lot of theories as to how it happens, most of these theories actually explain nothing at all. There is a lot of talk about how the syndrome relates to other psychological disorders, but just exactly what it is and what happens in the brain when it happens nobody seems to know.

And what is it that happens? Well, people who spoke in one accent one day and then have a brain disease or some trauma, may end up talking in the accents of quite a different country the next day, even though they have no real knowledge of those other countries' accents. One of the most interesting things associated with the syndrome is that at the same time as the accent changes so does the personality. Such changes are usually temporary and go away by themselves in due course.

The TV program about the recent Australian case showed video of the patient. The change in accent, inclination, rhythm and the general demeanor was startling. A psychiatrist who was asked for comment was very vague about it all, and basically said that it just happens occasionally and that it is because things have happened in the brain. In the commentary there was a brief reference to reincarnation, but that was about the only reference to anything that was not strictly 'scientific'. I suppose, they did not want to be accused of putting on a fluff piece, even though it was a fluff piece, because it focused on the woman's effect on the people around her after her sudden change. Typical 'human interest' story, in which the really interesting things were lost.

The truly significant questions associated with this case were simply glossed over, and the expert's vague opinion was inserted almost as an afterthought to satisfy any questions as to the ' why?' of it all.

Reading between the lines of this fluff piece, there are some very, very troubling questions. For example:

(1) How can a person, who has no knowledge of some accent, speak in perfect imitation of a native speaker of said accent?

(2) Why is there usually also an associated change in behavior?

(3) Why does the syndrome usually 'go away' after a certain time?

(4) Is foreign accent syndrome merely the visible tip of an iceberg of something that happens in the brains of many people who have brain trauma or illness, but whose symptoms are nowhere as spectacular or visible as those of foreign accent syndrome sufferers?

I'll give you the bottom line to this, because I don't have the time right now to indulge in lengthy analyses of what these questions might resolve to. And the bottom line is this:

The most pithy explanation for these phenomena involve something that will make scientists shudder: possession.

Possession in the truest sense of the word. Or maybe 'occupation'. Maybe also 'brain sharing'. And, yes, we're not talking about long-winded neuro-psycho-babble but something much more along the lines of what Spiritualists would have wound immensely familiar and comforting.

I've considered many of these things during decades of trying to make sense out of what and who we are, and what is true and what isn't. Ultimately I rejected, and still do, religio-babble and bullshit and metaphysical philosophy involving souls or stuff like that; and especially anything 'supernatural'. But I also have a measure of empirical integrity, and FAS pushes the bounds of 'scientifically accepted' explanations to the breaking point.

Here's another report that should make scientists with integrity sit up and take a much closer look. It combines virtually all the critical elements of the phenomenon, and in addition it isn't just about an 'accent' but a whole damn language!

And, no, I don't want to encourage people to think of reincarnation and possession and all the things that come with speculating outside a proper scientific framework of explanantion. The problem is that something like FAS, rare as it appears to be—for how many instances are there that undiagnosed?—rattled the foundations of the currently fashionable scientific paradigms of what 'mind' is; and, of course, it raises yet again the question of what happens to us after we die. It is nothing at all, as extinctionists would have it, or is the brain not the only 'medium', or 'substrate', if you will, in which what we know as 'thought' or 'consciousness' or whatever it is that make us what we are can take place?

Momentous questions, all glossed over glibly and quite without appreciation of their profundity in a 'news magazine' fluff piece.

Well, what do you know?

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