Isabel Gonzalo, a physicist from the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) recently released a study that reveals the bizarre story of “Patient M,” a person whose brain made him see the world backward and upside down.
In the year 1938, Patient M was shot in the head and was brought to an army hospital where he was diagnosed by Isabel’s father Justo Gonzalo, a neuroscientist who treated injured soldiers during the Spanish civil war. He spent 50 years of his life studying the unique medical condition of M. His daughter picked up from where he left off.
Seeing the world through the lens of Patient M
Patient M had suffered damage in the parieto-occipital region, the part of the brain that controls functions like visual mapping and processing, spatial orientation, the shape and size of objects, and hand-eye coordination.
During his treatment, M was unconscious for nearly two weeks and when he woke up, his world was literally upside down.
He saw and heard things backward, he was able to read numbers and words in a book only when they were inverted in front of him. However, he could tell the time on a wristwatch from any direction. Often the clouds in the sky and people standing on the ground appeared upside down to him.
Moreover, sometimes, he also experienced color blindness and triple vision. When Dr. Gonzalo heard about all these symptoms, he was intrigued and decided to investigate patient M more thoroughly, even after his treatment was over.
Many decades ago, scientists knew far less about the human brain and how it works than today. Naturally, Dr. Gonzalo initially struggled to comprehend how Patient M's brain worked after the injury. After some time, based on his own analysis and findings, he proposed a new hypothesis, brain dynamics.
"The brain was seen like little boxes. When you altered a box, supposedly there was a concrete deficit. For Dr. Gonzalo, the modular theories couldn't explain the questions that emerged with Patient M, so he began to create his theory of brain dynamics, breaking with the hegemonic vision about how the brain works," Alberto García Molina, the first author of the study and an expert in neuropsychology, told El País.
Patient M and brain dynamics
According to the theory of brain dynamics, a particular cognitive function is not limited to one part but is distributed between different parts of the brain. So different functions in the brain are interlinked and undergo changes together over time.
For example, Gonzalo explained that an injury (like that of Patient M) doesn’t affect a single function, but causes imbalance among different functions that are interconnected and distributed within the brain.
In the case of Patient M, the injury affected the central, marginal, and paracentral parts of the brain. These areas control multiple senses and regulate functions like mapping, visual-spatial ability, and number and text comprehension.
The strange visual experience of Patient M was actually the result of an imbalance in these brain dynamics incurred by his injury.
Dr. Gonzalo studied Patient M from 1938 until his death in 1986. He used to make notes and write letters to M that reveal that, in the beginning, the patient considered his condition to be a temporary problem.
Although M fought in the war, he never received any wounded veteran pension. In the eyes of the Spanish government, seeing the world backward was not some health problem caused by a war wound. When he realized that the visual disturbances were not going away, M was still calm and didn’t allow his condition to affect his life.
Isabel Gonzalo said, “My father admired him because he was a very bright person who was capable of taking care of himself and working in the fields.”
To this day, no other human being with symptoms like that of Patient M has ever been reported. Study authors suggest that M possibly died in the 1990s. His original identity is still unknown, but he will always be remembered for his role in shaping the field of brain dynamics and expanding our understanding of the human brain.
The study is published in the journal Neurologia.