A Journey Inside the Brain

Frigyes Karinthy (born in 1887 in Budapest) was a well-known Hungarian poet, playwright, novelist, and humorist, when he developed, at the age of forty-eight, what in retrospect were the first symptoms of a growing brain tumor.

He was having tea at his favorite café in Budapest one evening when he heard “a distinct rumbling noise, followed by a slow, increasing reverberation,…a louder and louder roar…, only to fade gradually into silence.” He looked up and was surprised to see that nothing was happening. There was no train; nor, indeed, was he near a train station. “What were they playing at?” Karinthy wondered. “Trains running outside,…or some new means of locomotion?” It was only after the fourth “train” that he realized he was having a hallucination.

In his memoir A Journey Round My Skull, Karinthy reflects on how he has occasionally heard his own name whispered softly—we have all had such experiences. But this was something quite different:

The roaring of a train [was] loud, insistent, continuous. It was powerful enough to drown real sounds…. After a while I realized to my astonishment that the outer world was not responsible…the noise must be coming from inside my head.

Many patients have described to me how they first experienced auditory hallucinations—usually not voices or noises, but music. All of them, like Karinthy, looked around to find the source of what they were hearing, and only when they could find no possible source did they, reluctantly and sometimes fearfully, conclude that they were hallucinating. Many people in this situation fear that they are going insane—for is it not typical of madness to “hear things”?

Karinthy was not concerned on this score:

I…did not find the incident at all alarming, but only very odd and unusual…. I could not have gone mad for, in that event, I should be incapable of diagnosing my case. Something else must be wrong….

So the first chapter of his memoir (“The Invisible Train”) opens like a detective story or a mystery novel, with a puzzling and bizarre incident that reflects the changes which are starting to happen, slowly, stealthily, in his own brain. Karinthy himself would be both subject and investigator in the increasingly complex drama that he was subsequently drawn into.

Gifted and precocious (he had written his first novel at fifteen), Karinthy achieved fame in 1912, at the age of twenty-five, when no fewer than five of his books were published. Though he was trained in mathematics and actively interested in all aspects of science, he was especially known for his satirical writings, his political passions, and his surreal sense of humor. He had written philosophical works, plays, poems, novels, and, at the time of his first symptoms, had started writing a vast encyclopedia, which he hoped might be the twentieth-century equivalent of Diderot’s monumental Encyclopedia. With all of this previous work, there had always been a plan, a structure, but now, forced to pay attention …

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