Alun Morgan, an 81-year-old Englishman, woke up three weeks after suffering a stroke, unable to remember English, and speaking only Welsh! It sounds like a joke, or an exaggeration, but it’s true. It’s yet another strange case of aphasia, a term which covers language and communication problems commonly occurring as a result of brain injury.
His doctors were surprised. His wife, a Welsh speaker herself, was absolutely amazed!
What is a stroke?
Firstly, let’s be clear about the terminology. Just exactly what is a stroke? A stroke is simply a disruption in the blood supply to the brain. Just as a disruption in the blood supply to the heart is called a heart attack, it would make sense to call the same thing when it happens to the brain, a brain attack. But that’s not generally the case; it’s known as a stroke.
Very often the cause is a blockage (usually a blood clot), and a stroke of this kind is called an ischaemic stroke. Sometimes the cause of the disruption is an actual bleed, and the result then is known as a haemorrhagic stroke. Either way, the brain is in very real trouble. The brain depends on a regular blood supply to deliver the oxygen and other nutrients it needs in order to function normally. Without these necessities, the brain (or the region of it that’s affected) fails to function correctly and can be damaged, perhaps permanently.
Transient ischaemic attack
Sometimes a person will suffer a temporary blockage in the blood supply to the brain (or a region of it), and this is known as a transient ischaemic attack, or TIA. These are sometimes referred to as mini-strokes, and although they may not be too serious in themselves, they should be taken very seriously. The damage might be very limited, and might only be temporary, but a TIA should be taken as a warning that you’re in danger of a full-blown stroke as a follow-up. While TIAs can technically occur at any age, they’re much more prevalent in older people.
Alun’s years as an evacuee
Mr Morgan has lived virtually all his life in England, speaking English. His grandmother and his aunt were Welsh speakers, and he spent some time with them during the War, when he was still a child. For four years, in fact, he spent his evacuation period with them, and he had to learn some Welsh pretty quickly in order to make himself understood. But he’s never used it since, and thought it was all forgotten.
The strange case of Mr Morgan has been widely reported in the British and international press these last few days (December 2012). Yesterday, from his home in Bath, Somerset, he said,
With the right rehabilitation, patients can recover, though it depends on the particular type of aphasia, the cause of the it, and its severity.
It seems the brain often struggles to deal with the intricacies of language after a stroke, and being very resourceful, it comes up with substitute ways to handle the problems of communication. Sometimes, for reasons which aren’t particularly clear, a stroke survivor will start to speak with a foreign accent. Generally, this effect fades after a while, as the person regains control over using their normal mode of speech.
In even stranger cases, the subject will actually speak in a foreign language, although there’s usually some background in that language, even if it’s not particularly comprehensive, and reaches back decades ago, as in Mr Morgan’s case.
It’s also interesting to note that Mr Morgan is quickly ‘forgetting’ Welsh again; it’s as though his brain has decided that it has a perfectly good communication system up and running again, and can safely slam shut that file drawer where the spare language was stored.
Learning a foreign language
It’s 70 years since Mr Morgan was in Wales and surrounded by Welsh speakers. Although he never officially ‘learned’ Welsh, he obviously became accustomed to the language and absorbed it in much the same way a child learns his native language. But after a gap of 70 years, it’s strange that he now finds it easier to communicate in Welsh, which he only spoke haltingly and for a few years, when he can’t yet speak English properly again, which he’s spoken all his life.
Is it the case, when learning a foreign language, that the brain stores all the information on such things and revisits it if and when necessary? If so, the storage capacity and capabilities of the brain are truly phenomenal. Maybe we really should stop all the negative thinking about memory. Left alone (or at most, gently encouraged), the memory abilities of the human brain seem effectively infinite.
It’s in our nature, I suppose, to ‘try’ to remember things, and to feel that we’re only really doing the necessary memory work if it actually feels like work, but it seems that our memory abilities far exceed our wildest imaginings. Maybe trying, when it comes to memory, is one of the things we really should steer clear of. Better to ‘just do it’, as Nike would have it.
While we’re at it, let’s stop all this nonsense about how terribly difficult it can be learning a foreign language – every little child does it, and does it quite naturally. One factor in our supposed difficulty in learning a foreign language later in life (if not the main one), is our ‘grown up’ attitude to these things. If we just approached them the way children do, with endless curiosity and playfulness, I think we’d find them a lot easier to deal with.
Get out of your own way!
Personally, I find that one of the most effective ways to remember something that seems to elude me is to consciously say to myself that it’ll come to me in a minute, and then leave it at that. This releasing of the subject in question seems to give the brain free rein to go about its business. I guess it’s like catching a ball – if you’re consciously waiting for someone to throw you a ball, and if you really want to catch it, you’re more likely (in my experience, anyway) to mishandle it and make a clumsy catch, or miss it altogether. If, on the other hand, someone shouts to catch your attention, and you turn to find a ball (or whatever) coming right at you, you can often catch it quite easily.
Because your conscious mind has not yet had time to get involved!
The problem with trying to remember something is … the trying. I guess the more confident we are of our memory’s capabilities, the more effective they become. And the reason is that we more readily step out of our own way!
Perhaps this is evidence of subliminal learning. While Mr Morgan never specifically tried to learn Welsh, and thought he knew only a smattering of it (long forgotten), it seems he ‘absorbed’ it, almost osmotically, through being surrounded by Welsh speakers, in a Welsh environment, for a period of time.
I suppose this lends credence to the belief that one can learn a subject without specifically studying it (in the normally accepted sense), simply by being thoroughly exposed to the subject matter.
Mentoring a young man with Asperger’s
On a personal note, I remember a friend of mine who was a mentor for a very bright young man with Asperger’s syndrome and who used to regularly accompany him into the lecture hall at university for his physics lectures. She (my friend, his mentor) had never been to university and had never had any interest in physics (in fact, she would have volunteered that she’d had a very ordinary and basic education), yet when I asked her had she picked anything up from the lectures, she said she was surprised that she’d learned quite a lot. And without making any particular effort. In fact, 95% of her attention was on Luke, the young man with Asperger’s, since he was prone to get upset at the least disturbance.
It seems simply being in the right learning environment counts for a lot (in certain things, at least, such as learning a foreign language). It also seems to be very beneficial to have a very relaxed and stress-free attitude to learning the subject. In other words, just being there, and letting it happen around you, while you’re apparently uninterested, can bring about quite remarkable results.
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