‘Human Autonomy and the Frontal Lobes’
Human Brain and Psychological Processes
The Neuropsychology of Memory
Long-lasting Perceptual Priming and Semantic Learning in Amnesia: A Case Experiment
Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion
‘The Medial Temporal Lobe Memory System’
Sound and Symbol: Volume I, Music and the External World Volume II, The Musician
‘Three Possible Mechanisms of Unawareness of Deficit’ Theoretical Issues
‘On Dreaming and Wakefulness’
Greg F. grew up in the 1950s in a comfortable Queens household, an attractive and rather gifted boy who seemed destined, like his father, for a professional career—perhaps a career in songwriting, for which he showed a precocious talent. But he grew restive, started questioning things, when he was fifteen; started to hate the conventional life of his parents and neighbors, and the cynical, bellicose administration of the country. His need to rebel, but equally to find an ideal and a guide, to find a leader, crystallized in the “Summer of Love,” in 1967. He would go to the Village, and listen to Allen Ginsberg declaiming all night; he loved rock music, especially acid rock, and, above all, the Grateful Dead.
Increasingly he fell out with his parents and teachers—was truculent with the one, secretive with the other. In 1968, a time when Timothy Leary was urging American youth to “tune in, turn on, and drop out,” Greg grew his hair long and dropped out of school, where he had been a good student; he left home and went to live in the Village, where he dropped acid, and joined the East Village drug culture—searching, like others of his generation, for utopia, for inner freedom, and for “higher consciousness.”
But “turning on” did not satisfy Greg, who stood in need of a more codified philosophy, doctrine, and way of life. In 1969 he gravitated, as so many young acid heads did, to the Swami Bhaktivedanta, and his society for Krishna Consciousness, on Second Avenue. And under his influence, Greg, like so many others, stopped taking acid, finding his religious exaltation a replacement for his acid highs. “The only radical remedy for dipsomania,” as William James wrote, “is religiomania.” The philosophy, the fellowship, the chanting, the rituals, the austere and charismatic figure of the swami himself came like a revelation to Greg, and he became, almost immediately, a passionate devotee and convert.1 Now there was a center, a focus, to his life. In those first, exalted weeks of his conversion, he wandered around the East Village, dressed in saffron robes, chanting the Hare Krishna mantras; and early in 1970, he took up residence in the main temple in Brooklyn. His parents objected at first, then went along with this. “Perhaps it will help him,” his father said, philosophically. “Perhaps—who knows?—this is the path he needs to follow.”
Greg’s first year at the temple went well, he was obedient, ingenuous, devoted, and pious. He is a Holy One, said the swami, one of us. Early in 1971, now deeply committed, Greg was sent to the temple in New Orleans. His parents had seen him occasionally when he was in the Brooklyn temple, but now all communication from him virtually ceased.
One problem arose in Greg’s second year with the Krishnas—he complained that his vision was growing dim, but this was interpreted, by his swami and others, in a spiritual way: he was “an illuminate,” they told him; it was the “inner light” growing. Greg had worried at first about his eyesight, but was reassured by the swami’s spiritual explanation. His sight grew still dimmer, but he offered no further complaints. And indeed, he seemed to be becoming more spiritual by the day—an amazing new serenity had taken hold of him. He no longer showed his previous impatience or appetites, and he was sometimes found in a sort of daze, with a strange (many said “transcendental”) smile on his face. It is beatitude, said his swami: he is becoming a saint. The temple felt he needed to be protected at this stage—he no longer went out or did anything unaccompanied—and contact with the outside world was strongly discouraged.
Although Greg’s parents did not have any direct communication from him, they did get occasional reports from the temple—reports filled, increasingly, with accounts of his “spiritual progress,” his “enlightenment,” accounts at once so vague and so out of character with the Greg they knew that, by degrees, they became alarmed. Once they wrote directly to the swami, and received a soothing, reassuring reply.
Three more years passed before Greg’s parents finally decided they had to see for themselves. His father, a man of nearly fifty when Greg was born, was now elderly and in poor health, and feared that if he waited longer he might never see his “lost” son again. On hearing this, the temple finally permitted a visit from Greg’s parents. In 1975, then, not having seen him for four years, they visited their son in the temple in New Orleans.
When they did so, they were filled with horror: their lean, hairy son had become fat and hairless; he wore a continual “stupid” smile on his face (this at least was his father’s word for it); he kept bursting into bits of song and verse, and making “idiotic” comments, while showing little deep emotion of any kind (“like he was scooped out, hollow inside,” his father said); he had lost interest in everything “current”; he was disoriented—and he was totally blind. The temple, surprisingly, acceded to his leaving—perhaps even they felt now that his ascension had gone too far, and had started to feel some disquiet about his state.
Greg was admitted to the hospital, examined, and transferred to neurosurgery. Brain imaging had shown an enormous tumor of the pituitary gland, destroying the adjacent optic chiasm and tracts, and extending on both sides into the frontal lobes. It also reached backward to the temporal lobes, and downward to the forebrain, or diencephalon. At surgery, the tumor was found to be benign, but it had swollen to the size of a small grapefruit or orange, and though the surgeons were able to remove it entirely, they could not undo the damage it had already done.
Greg was now not only blind, but gravely disabled neurologically and mentally—a disaster which could have been prevented entirely had his first complaints of dimming vision been heeded, and had medical sense, and even common sense, been allowed to judge his state. Since, tragically, no recovery could be expected, or very little, Greg was admitted to Williamsbridge, a hospital for the chronically sick, a twenty-five-year-old boy for whom active life had come to an end, and for whom the prognosis was “hopeless.”
I first met Greg in April 1977, when he arrived at Williamsbridge Hospital. Lacking facial hair, and childlike in manner, he seemed younger than his twenty-five years. He was fat, Buddha-like, with a vacant, bland face, his blind eyes roving at random in their orbits, while he sat motionless in his wheelchair. If he lacked spontaneity, and initiated no exchanges, he responded promptly and appropriately, and with wit, when I spoke to him. But his answers were short, never expanded the question, never gave rise to associations or reflection. Between questions, if the time was not filled, there tended to be a deepening silence; and if this lasted for more than a minute, he would fall into Hare Krishna chants, or to a soft muttering of mantras. He was still, he said, “a total believer,” devoted to the group’s doctrines and aims.
I could not get any consecutive history from him—he was not sure, for a start, why he was in the hospital, and gave different reasons when I asked him about this; first he said, “Because I’m not intelligent,” later, “Because I took drugs in the past.” He knew he had been at the main Hare Krishna temple (“a big red house, 439 Henry Street, in Brooklyn”), but not that he had subsequently been at their temple in New Orleans. Nor did he remember that he started to have symptoms there—first and foremost a progressive loss of vision. Indeed he seemed unaware that he had any problems: that he was blind, that he was unable to walk steadily, that he was in any way ill.
Unaware—and indifferent. Ill, blind, incorrigibly disabled, he had been dumped in a hospital for the chronically sick with no prospect of ever getting out or recovering; but nothing of this seemed real to him at all. He seemed bland, placid, emptied of all feeling—it was this unnatural serenity which his Krishna brethren had perceived, apparently, as “bliss,” and indeed, at one point, Greg used the term himself. “How do you feel?” I returned to this again and again. “I feel blissful,” he replied at one point, “I am afraid of falling back into the material world.” At this point, when he was first in the hospital, many of his Hare Krishna friends would come to visit him; I often saw their saffron robes in the corridors. They would come to visit poor, blind, blank Greg, and flock around him; they saw him as having achieved “detachment,” as an enlightened one.
Questioning him about current events and people, I found the depths of his disorientation and confusion. When I asked him who was the president, he said “Lyndon,” then, “the one who got shot.” I prompted, “Jimmy…” and he said, “Jimi Hendrix,” and when I roared with laughter, he said maybe a musical White House would be a good idea. A few more questions convinced me that Greg had virtually no memory of events much past 1970, certainly no coherent, chronological memory of them. He seemed to have been left, marooned, in the Sixties—his memory, his development, his inner life since then had come to a stop.
His tumor, a slow-growing one, was huge when it was finally removed in 1976; but only in the later stages of its growth, as it destroyed the memory system in the temporal lobe, would it actually have prevented the brain from registering new events. But Greg had difficulties—not absolute, but partial—even in remembering events from the late Sixties, events which he must have registered perfectly at the time. So, beyond the inability to register new experiences, there had been an erosion of existing memories (a retrograde amnesia) going back several years before his tumor had developed. There was not an absolutely sharp cutoff here, but rather a temporal gradient, so that figures and events from 1966 and 1967 were fully remembered, events from 1968 or 1969 partially or occasionally remembered, and events after 1970 almost never remembered.
It was easy to demonstrate the severity of his immediate amnesia. If I gave him lists of words, he was unable to recall any of them after a minute. When I told him a story and asked him to repeat it, he did so in a more and more confused way, with more and more “contaminations” and misassociations—some droll, some extremely bizarre—until within five minutes his story bore no resemblance to the one I had told him. Thus when I told him a tale about a lion and a mouse, he soon departed from the original story and had the mouse threatening to eat the lion—it had become a giant mouse and a mini-lion. Both were mutants, Greg explained when I quizzed him on his departures. Or possibly, he said, they were creatures from a dream, or “an alternative history” in which mice were indeed the lords of the jungle. Five minutes later, he had no memory of the story whatever.
The swami's unusual views are presented, in summary form, in Easy Journey to Other Planets by Tridandi Goswami A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, published by the League of Devotees, Vrindaban (no date, one rupee). This slim manual, in its green paper cover, was handed out in vast quantities by the swami's saffron-robed followers, and it became Greg's Bible at this stage.↩
The swami’s unusual views are presented, in summary form, in Easy Journey to Other Planets by Tridandi Goswami A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, published by the League of Devotees, Vrindaban (no date, one rupee). This slim manual, in its green paper cover, was handed out in vast quantities by the swami’s saffron-robed followers, and it became Greg’s Bible at this stage.↩