The human body is a weird and wonderful thing. But when it comes to the brain, it’s mostly just weird. Go flicking through medical journals and you’ll discover that our minds are capable of deceiving us in the strangest possible ways. Sometimes, these horrific conditions can occur without warning.
10 Living Out The Plot Of Big
Remember that Tom Hanks film Big? It’s about a boy who wishes that he was a grown-up. Thanks to some vaguely explained magic, his wish is granted. He goes to sleep one evening and wakes up the next day in an adult body. Hilarity ensues.
If you’ve ever stopped to think about the plot, you’ve probably realized that Big is kind of terrifying. Being magically granted a mature body while still having a child’s brain would be the stuff of nightmares. We know this for a fact because it really happened to Naomi Jacobs in 2008.
At the time, Jacobs was 32 and dealing with the fallout from a decade of homelessness, bankruptcy, and drug abuse. One morning, she woke up to find that the previous 17 years had been wiped from her memory.
The last thing that she could recall happened when she was 15. She was climbing into the bunk bed that she shared with her sister and trying not to worry about her upcoming French exam.
From Naomi’s point of view, she’d fallen asleep as a teenager and awakened as an adult. To make matters worse, her adult mind had no recollection of 21st-century technology or even her 10-year-old child.
Interestingly, there was no physical reason for Jacobs to lose her memory. She was suffering from dissociative amnesia, meaning that the mind-wipe was caused by psychological factors. It’s believed that she was so stressed out and traumatized by her past (including sexual abuse as a child) that her brain just flipped a switch and wiped it all out.
9 Seeing An Extra Dimension
Stereoblindness is a condition that affects 5–10 percent of the global population. It affects your ability to see in 3-D, so the world appears to be completely flat.
Since the ability to see things in three dimensions is learned during a narrow window of brain development when we’re young, stereoblindness is usually a lifelong condition—unless you have an experience like Bruce Bridgeman did in 2012.
Bridgeman, 67, had never seen the world in three dimensions. One day, he went out to see Hugo, the Martin Scorsese family film. Unable to find a 2-D showing, he was forced to cough up the extra bucks for some 3-D glasses that he knew he wouldn’t be able to use. Nonetheless, he put them on, went into the cinema, and sat down. When the film started, Bridgeman could suddenly see in 3-D.
Imagine finding that your human eyes had magically been upgraded to those of a hawk or maybe a superhuman who can see heat or radio waves. That’s basically what happened to Bridgeman. After nearly seven decades of being stuck in a two-dimensional world, he could see in 3-D.
The effect continued after he left the movie. In the blink of an eye, his stereoblindness had vanished. Doctors now think that his brain had developed the synaptic pathways for doing so when he was young. For some reason, they hadn’t activated until he got a big jolt of 3-D cinema.
8 Being Forced To Make Continual Wisecracks
The term “continual wisecracks” brings to mind an image like Groucho Marx firing off witticisms like a caffeinated Oscar Wilde. But imagine if that was something over which you had no control. Imagine that you could no more stop dropping one-liners than you could stop breathing.
For sufferers of Witzelsucht, that’s not just a strange thought experiment. It’s their daily reality.
Perhaps the earliest case was recorded way back in 1929. German neurologist Otfrid Foerster was removing a brain tumor when the patient suddenly came to manic life on the operating table and began cracking pun after awful pun.
Since then, others who have suffered damage to their frontal lobes have been reported to display the same symptoms. The BBC recently reported on a man known only as Derek who had suffered two strokes five years apart.
Not long after the second stroke, Derek began cracking terrible jokes. He never stopped. Not only that, he couldn’t stop. Even while sleeping, he would laugh himself awake recounting awful puns. Needless to say, it drove his wife nuts.
Interestingly, people suffering from Witzelsucht are often incapable of understanding other people’s jokes. Although they may still laugh at slapstick, wordplay that isn’t their own leaves them utterly cold. It’s believed that this may have something to do with the way that damaged brains release dopamine, responding only to internal thoughts.
7 Having Your Head ‘Explode’
Have you ever been on the verge of dropping off when you suddenly heard someone say your name? According to Mind, a mental health charity, this is a common condition that affects many of us at one time or another. For some people, though, the experience goes beyond merely hearing a voice. They can feel like their heads are literally exploding.
Known aptly as “exploding head syndrome,” the condition can affect almost anyone and occur at any time. Some may only feel it once in their lives. Others can have their heads suddenly start “exploding” night after night—like their brains are the climax of a Fourth of July fireworks show.
It’s undoubtedly unpleasant. Some sufferers have described it as seeing a bright flash of light and then feeling like they were at the epicenter of an explosion. Others have said that it was like having a grenade detonate on their pillows.
The phenomenon is surprisingly common for those who are suffering from insomnia, jet lag, or all-nighters. One study estimated that 22 percent of students suffer from this condition.
Strangely, we’re not entirely sure what causes it. The best explanation is that there is a “bump” between our waking and sleeping states that causes a lot of neurons in the brain to misfire at once.
6 Having Someone Else’s Limb Appear On Your Body
Imagine that you wake up one morning to discover that a crazed surgeon has crept into your room during the night and performed a horrific operation on you. Instead of your left arm, you now have the left arm of the old woman living across the hall. Worse yet, she’s still in control of it.
No, this isn’t a pitch for a new horror film. It’s a rare condition known as somatoparaphrenia. It can occur at any time, usually following an injury to the right side of the brain. Those suffering from it become convinced that one of their limbs is not their own. They persist in this belief even when confronted with direct evidence to counter it.
While some with this condition just consider the limbs to be alien implants, others believe that they belong to specific people. One patient—whose somatoparaphrenia was caused by schizophrenia rather than injury—thought that his right arm belonged to a woman he knew named Maria.
For some, the experience of having an alien limb is so horrible that they go to great lengths to have it amputated.
5 Meeting Your Own Double
The idea of the doppelganger is so prevalent in storytelling that it has shown up in everything from the works of Dostoyevsky to The Simpsons. Usually, the story features a moment when other characters can’t tell who the “real” person is. But if you meet your doppelganger in real life, it could be much worse than that. Even you may no longer be able to tell which is the real you.
About 20 years ago, neuropsychologist Peter Brugger reported meeting a 21-year-old from Zurich who had met his own double. He had recently stopped taking anticonvulsant medication and had spent the morning drinking heavily. At some point, he felt dizzy and stood up—and that’s when things went insane.
The young man turned around and saw his own double lying on the bed. He started shouting at his new twin, only to suddenly find himself lying on his bed and looking up at the shouting face of his doppelganger.
Unable to figure out if the “real” him was the one lying on the bed or the one shouting, he had a breakdown and jumped from a fourth-story window. Miraculously, he survived the fall.
Such moments are extremely rare but not unheard of. The man from Zurich had a tumor in his left temporal lobe. Other reports of doppelgangers have come from other people suffering similar damage to that region.
4 Losing The Ability To Remember Anything
Are you one of those people who hates going to the dentist? Well, we’ve got a whole new reason for you to avoid the experience. At 1:40 PM on March 14, 2005, a soldier known only as William walked into his dentist’s office for root canal surgery. He never came out.
We don’t mean that the dentist killed him. Something much stranger happened. At the exact moment that the dentist gave him a local anesthetic, William completely lost the ability to form new memories. His mental clock stopped dead, frozen forever in the middle of his appointment.
Creepily, there’s absolutely no reason why this might have happened. When William was rushed to the hospital, it was assumed that he’d had a severe reaction to the anesthetic. But that wasn’t the case. There was nothing physically wrong with him. It was like his brain had just stopped functioning properly.
Fast-forward to today, and William has a memory of 90 minutes. Beyond that point, everything vanishes. As far as he’s aware, it’s always midafternoon on March 14, 2005, and he’s just awakened after a dental operation.
3 Losing The Ability To Understand Mirrors
As shown in the video above, one of cinema’s greatest gags came in the 1933 Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup. After Harpo breaks Groucho’s mirror, Harpo must pretend to be his brother’s reflection so that Groucho won’t realize what’s happened.
This being the Marx Brothers, there’s a surreal moment when Harpo—still pretending to be Groucho’s reflection—hands his brother a hat and Groucho takes it without thinking. It’s a hilarious scene in a hilarious movie. It’s also a perfect demonstration of mirror agnosia.
Mirror agnosia can occur due to right parietal lesions but is more commonly associated with dementia. Sufferers lose the ability to understand mirrors or reflections.
There are cases where doctors tested this with an apple. The patient would sit in front of a mirror. Then the doctor would stand behind the patient and hold up an apple so that the patient could only see the apple’s reflection in the mirror.
When told to get the apple, the patient would try to reach through the mirror. Even after being told what a mirror was, the patient continued to believe that the apple was in front of them rather than behind.
Freakily, it doesn’t seem that mirror agnosia can be cured. For example, if you lose your ability to understand reflections tomorrow from a brain injury, you’re unlikely to ever get it back.
2 Having Your Heart Go Crazy
Right now, your body is doing too many vital things to count. You’re breathing, you’re blinking, your heart is beating, your stomach is breaking down food, and you’re not thinking about any of it. It’s second nature to you, complete background noise.
So imagine what might happen if one of those little things suddenly changed. Imagine that your heart started beating in the wrong place. You’d suddenly start noticing it, right?
For a handful of people, that has actually happened. In 2014, the BBC reported on a man known as Carlos whose heart started beating in his stomach. It wasn’t his real heart. The man was old and had just been fitted with a pump in his abdomen to keep his heart ticking. But to Carlos, the pump felt like his real heart. And that had all sorts of weird implications.
The simplest was that Carlos began to lose all sense of his chest. With his heart seemingly migrating south, he started to feel like his chest was bigger than he remembered it and was taking up valuable body room.
Crazily, it also affected his mind. With his new mechanical heart, Carlos suddenly lost his ability to feel empathy toward people in pain. Other social skills disappeared, too, including his ability to read other people’s motives. Simply by tricking his body into thinking its heart had moved, it seemed like his whole mind had gone haywire.
1 Losing The Ability To Sleep
Some people like to boast about how little sleep they need. Sufferers of fatal familial insomnia (FFI) almost certainly hate them. An ultrarare condition that occurs when a specific genetic mutation activates, FFI causes the patient to completely lose the ability to sleep. In most cases, it never comes back.
The effects are horrifying. As the sleepless nights mount up, the patients start to slip into a permanent half-dream state. Although they’re awake, they start to act out the crazy half-dreams that form in their subconscious rather than engage with the world around them.
Patients have been known to walk around in a daze as they mime putting on clothes or combing their hair. As they slip further into that deadly twilight world, their ability to speak fades, followed by their ability to walk. After many months have passed, they simply close their eyes and drift off into that permanent state of sleep—death.
The good news is that only about 40 families worldwide have the genetic defect that triggers FFI. The better news is that even those with the defect often live long, happy lives and never suffer insomnia.
The bad news for those affected is that FFI can occur at any time without warning. One night, they’ll go to bed, close their eyes, and find that they can’t sleep. Drugs won’t help, hypnosis won’t help, and seeing the doctor won’t help. They’ll simply spend the next few months in mental anguish before dying a horrible death.
Good luck not thinking about that the next time you suffer a bout of insomnia.