Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Storyteller's Reconstruction: A Book Review of Claudia Osborn's "Over My Head"

Brie Stark's picture

The Storyteller’s Reconstruction:
Over My Head, by Claudia Osborn  


            Claudia Osborn’s Over My Head is a riveting journey of coping, rehabilitating and learning before and after brain trauma.  The story shines a new light on the behavioral consequences of such an injury.  Through the lens of biology 202, we are able to understand that a reconstruction of the storyteller occurs in Claudia’s case.  This reconstruction leads to novel confabulations of the same stimuli that she received before her accident.


Claudia’s story begins at the hospital where she works as a young, empathetic doctor specialized in internal medicine.  She is a coveted teacher by the resident doctors, a studied lecturer, a philosophical conversationalist and, above all, very good at her job.  Claudia loves this chaotic, though unbelievably rewarding stage of her life.  Having never married, she lives with her best friend and fellow accomplished doctor, Marcia. 


            Following a normal day at the hospital, Claudia and Marcia embark on a bike ride.  Suddenly, a pick-up truck speeds through a stop sign and veers into the oncoming lane; Marcia vaults herself to safety but Claudia is hit dead-on, rolls up onto the windshield, over the roof and hard onto the pavement.  Claudia brought her arms rigidly to her chest in a reflexive posturing of the body typical of injury to the brain stem (Osborn:23). 


            Claudia did not fall into a prolonged coma.  She spent only a few hours in the hospital, having persuaded her ER doctor that she, living with a competent doctor at home, would be perfectly fine.  Claudia, though, would soon come to find that her life had been greatly changed.  She received considerable brain damage and lost much of her memory, ability to reason and think, her dynamism, her empathy and, ultimately and most destructive of all, her career as a doctor.


            It is advantageous to regard the brain as having a bi-partite construction: having a cognitive unconscious and a conscious storyteller.  The cognitive unconscious feeds stimuli into the storyteller from the outside, at which point, as discussed in biology 202, the storyteller constructs, or confabulates, stories that rationalize what the brain perceives through this stimuli.  This conception concludes that each individual is apt to create equally individualized stories, even if receiving the same constant stimuli.  With these observations in mind, it is notable to ask ourselves: what occurs when the brain’s normal set of stories—as having been perfected over time by a fairly constant storyteller that has developed since birth—is disrupted by a thing such as brain damage?


            Claudia opens our eyes to many possibilities.  After having realized the extent of her injury, Claudia begins to relive, for the reader, her days in New York City at the New York University Head Trauma Program.  She attempts to cope with this newfound inability to think clearly, constantly “flooding” her mind with incoherent thoughts that do not produce conclusions or rational sequencing.  Throughout this frustrating process of memory loss, Claudia suddenly finds something useful—something extraordinarily different—about her perception of the world:


            “Prior to my injury, I was no more likely to paint than I was to sing Carmen at the Met.  Just as I had no voice, I couldn’t draw a respectable stick figure.  The injury didn’t change that, but while it numbed my response to almost all other stimuli, it intensified my perception of color.  Certainly I had always enjoyed color.  Now I could see hues and tones I had never seen before.  Everywhere I turned, I saw a dazzling intensity and diversity of color.  Put me in a room of impressionistic art and I was oblivious to the pictures’ subjects but floored by their brilliants oils” (Osborn:115).  Before her accident, when seeing or registering a material object, her storyteller confabulated a story that was concentrated on the subject and neglected the colors.  Now, for reasons that neurobiologists still strive to classify, Claudia’s storyteller has made a dramatic switch in the way that it confabulates.  Her conscious begins to focus upon the light and dark, upon the hues and undertones of objects rather than on the object itself. 


            Reading Over My Head with the conceptions of biology 202 in mind offers an enthralling, entirely behaviorally-based view of the consequences of head trauma.  The reader is never told of the medical specifics of her head trauma.  Instead, the reader is offered a well-written manuscript, which at first look is regarded as a story with a happy ending.  With further scrutiny, however, the reader understands that one is actually being offered a full-blown account of an individual’s behavioral changes as a consequence of brain trauma.  Claudia provides the reader with detailed observations of her life before and after the trauma, thus letting the reader draw inferences about how her behavior shifted as a result of this brain reconstruction. 


Drawing upon the concept of the storyteller, as discussed in biology 202, we come to understand a critical concept: that the storyteller of an individual is apt to experience novelties which were once unappreciated; that the confabulations one once had are liable to be rationalized in a different way and, finally, that the reconstruction of the physical brain subsequently has an effect upon the reconstruction of the storyteller, and thus the reconstruction of perception and the entire reconstruction of the individual. 


            This book was a well-hidden “light read” that packed a great deal of clandestine observations regarding the behavioral consequences of brain trauma.  Claudia does not presume to know why or how her brain has changed following the trauma.  Claudia, through her book, concentrates on learning about her ‘new’ self—she begins to understand that her storyteller has changed its manner of perception and that she, too, must learn to understand that what she once confabulated is no longer applicable to her new storyteller’s confabulations.  The book offers invaluable insight into a case-study of storyteller and therefore behavior reconstruction, which, if regarded through the lens of biology 202, creates one more observation in the process of deciphering the impact of brain trauma on behavior and the conscious sector of the bi-partite brain.


Raphael's picture


This is truly the most remarkable review I have ever read in the course of my 103 years upon this planet. Kudos, to you my kind pal, for the elegant tongue and recollection which you inquired into this magnificence before my eyes. Yours truly,
Raphael Y.B. Molkin