The weirdest organ in our bodies is the one that makes us who we are. But when something goes wrong in the brain, it can present itself in any number of bizarre ways. That may depend on what’s wrong, what region of the brain is affected, or considering the odd ways the brain works, pure luck. For example, a case in Paris 150 years ago had a particularly specific symptom:
When Louis Victor Leborgne died in 1861, aged 51, he had been virtually speechless for 21 years. Not completely speechless: He could speak one word, “tan”. Over and over again: “Tan. Tan.” In the months before he died, a doctor called Pierre Paul Broca, a language specialist, had become interested in his case. Leborgne was apparently still intelligent, still aware of his surroundings, still capable of telling where he was and how long he’d been there. But he’d lost all use of language, reported Broca:
He could no longer produce but a single syllable, which he usually repeated twice in succession; regardless of the question asked him, he always responded: tan, tan, combined with varied expressive gestures. This is why, throughout the hospital, he is known only by the name Tan.
After Leborgne’s death, Broca examined his body, and found a lesion in the posterior inferior frontal gyrus – a brain region now known as “Broca’s area”.