Am I the only one who believes—without hesitation and with no medical knowledge beyond a few Oliver Sacks books—that neurological disorders tell us who we really are? Is anyone else enamored by mind diseases and their relationship to language? Reading through an interview in HarvardMedicine with a neurologist who experiences bouts of hypergraphia (“the medical term for an overpowering desire to write,” as explained in the interview), I suddenly become like a sports fan of the human condition. I cheer and rally. Look at us and how awesomely our brains respond to stress and trauma! Go team!
Alice Flaherty, the neurologist, describes the compulsion as all-encompassing: “That’s all I was conscious of—I had important ideas that I needed to write down because otherwise I would forget them.” What strikes me is her emphasis on documentation, and that the anxiety compelling the act of writing is so entangled with memory. Her hypergraphic writing was not fueled by a desire for self-expression or to engage in communication with others; she wrote so she wouldn't forget.
To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of neurological dysfunction is the idea that they inherently reveal something ancient and essential about human beings. And while no doubt Alice Flaherty’s hypergraphia manifests differently from anyone else’s, is it so outlandish to conclude that writing is a very basic human need? That we are hard-wired not only to form language, but to put that language down in an attempt at preservation? Language can save us!
My monkey brain knows this is true. Putting the words down, the simple everyday act of getting them written, is often what gets us by.
Photo: Rick Friedman for The New York Times