In 1999 I was in a car crash that left me with brain trauma from a concussion. Despite the difficulties, as a professor I found my hugely altered world captivating, and for no other reason than curiosity I began to take notes. This was tricky: I couldn’t read, I couldn’t always control my hands, and because of the brain damage I couldn’t plan at all, so my records of many hundreds of bizarre events were faithfully written on napkins and Post-it notes, and stuffed into text files in random directories on my computers. Ultimately, the record comprised 1,200 pages. Over time I was able to distill my notations into a collection of 200 episodes in the life of a concussive.
After the accident, I was told I would never recover. Much to my surprise, eight years later I found a miraculous treatment in Chicago based on the plastic nature of our brains, and within a few weeks the ghost of who I had been began to emerge.
I was prescribed special eyeglasses that helped to reshape my brain’s functioning by remapping the signals coming from my retinas. At one point I lost those glasses, and over the course of five days I regressed significantly. When my replacements came, I felt the flooding ecstasy of being whole once again. I sat down at the piano and began playing Beatles songs in 12 different keys. I could “see” the sounds, and the relationships, so clearly—it was as though I had entered another world, one that allowed me to capture the essence of the music in the clearest mental images.
Because I had studied cognition as an AI scientist, and because I had detailed notes of many experiences, I knew that I could write a narrative that would illuminate the science behind my recovery. Later, in writing the book, I used my log records verbatim in order to exemplify the strange joy of being in my life at these times of reawakening. I supplemented the self-reporting of the cognitive episodes with analysis drawn from the notes my treating optometrist had taken, and I linked them all together.
Structurally, the book was a devil to work out. It was at least three books in one, all at odds with one another. Particularly challenging was that the story structure was chronological, while the science behind the story was conceptual, leading to puzzles about what to present first. It was written for different audiences as well: those with concussions, parents, doctors treating brain injury, athletes, those in the military, and those simply interested in the complexity of the healthy human brain. While I wanted to relate the science behind my recovery, I also needed to capture the essence of what it was like to have a brain injury, because it was crucially important for me to portray the social, cognitive, and emotional character of my experience.
Most important, I wanted to reach those readers who themselves are enduring similar difficult and enigmatic injuries and to let them know that the future for them may also be bright.
Clark Elliott is an associate professor of artificial intelligence and cognitive science at DePaul University, in Chicago. His book, The Ghost in My Brain, will be published by Viking in June.