This is the section that I would like to be considered in the light of the experience of Karen's father-in-law:
Bhagawhandi was dying. That was obvious to all who knew her. The doctors had diagnosed a malignant brain tumour, an astrocytoma, which was impossible to remove. She was only nineteen years old. What surprised everybody was how remarkably cheerful she was, accepting totally that she had but a short time to live. The tumour was growing larger day by day and was inching forward towards her temporal lobe. Up until this stage she had suffered the occasional seizures but nothing particularly debilitating. However as soon as pressure was placed upon her temporal lobe her seizures became more frequent – and stranger.
In the early stages of her illness the seizures had been grand mal convulsions but her new ones were altogether of a different nature. She would not lose consciousness, but would drift into an epileptic – like dream-state, similar to that described by Hughlings Jackson. She began to experience the classic ‘reminiscence’ as described in chapter 4.
As Bhagawhandi’s present life began to ebb away she began to live more and more in her new world created from her own past. The visions ceased being occasional and began to take up most of her waking hours. She lay, her young face rapt in attention to a world inside her own mind, with a faint, mysterious smile on her face. What was happening had a profound effect upon the nursing staff around her. All accepted that something very strange, but very wonderful was taking place. Nobody disturbed her allowing her her dreams.
The psychiatrist responsible for her was also fascinated. He felt awkward but was keen to know exactly what was taking place. He asked her quietly “Bhagawhandi, what is happening?”
“I am dying”, she answered, “I am going home. I am going back where I came from-you might call it my return.”
During the next week she disappeared totally into the world of her memories. She ceased responding to all external stimuli but lay with the same faint smile on her face. Three days later she quietly slipped away, returning permanently to her own past. And in this way she died, as the psychiatrist poetically described it “or should we say, arrived, having completed her passage to India”.[i]
At first sight this case, so described in Oliver Sacks’ wonderful book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, seems to have many similarities with the discoveries of Wilder Penfield described in an earlier chapter. Indeed Sacks and his associates came to the same initial conclusion. However on reflection this was seen as a far more complex phenomenon. The Penfield memories were very similar to tape recordings in that if interrupted they would, if started again, go through the memorised event again. For Bhagawhandi the hallucinations were much wider in terms of their structure. To extend the analogy of videotape it seems that Penfield’s patients accessed their memories via a videocassette recording. The recall was presented in a rigidly linear format with no options on random access. Bhagawhandi’s memories on the other hand seemed to be recorded upon a format such as a DVD. Not only was random access available but also differing viewpoints and sound effects could be selected. This three-dimensional memory recall is exactly how Karl Pribram believes memory, and perception to work. Sacks’ tragic young patient was re-accessing her memories as recorded in the holographic-like processes suggested by Pribram and Bohm.
[i] Sacks O “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat” (Duckworth) 1985