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

The Butterflies of Our Mind

Congwen Wang's picture


The Butterflies of Our Mind


I was first introduced to “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” when I was searching information about consciousness disorders. The book was written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a patient with locked-in syndrome. Then the chief editor of French Elle, Bauby suffered the condition caused by a massive stroke. Only able to turn his head and blink his left eye, he was “imprisoned inside his own body” (4). To me, it sounds like the worst nightmare one can possibly experience – even worse than a complete loss of consciousness. I cannot imagine how claustrophobic it would feel, unable to give response to the outer world when I could still feel everything around me.


And that was Bauby’s life after it was turned upside down. Things as easy and trivial as eating and drinking – even breathing – became luxury. In the book, Bauby described his “new life” welled with detail and emotion: being fed by a feeding tube, being washed by nurses, being taken to a walk around the hospital… Once a successful man travelling around the world, he was confined to the bed and the wheelchair, or rather, his motionless body. With this memoir, Bauby showed his turns of emotions when facing the drastic change, sometimes wistful and contemplating, sometimes angry and sardonic. He described himself “something of a zombie father”, an utter opposite of his energetic children (69). Meanwhile, Bauby’s eloquent expression often made me forget his disability. It is quite an unimaginable feat to write a book literally with only one eye, but he did it. With a secretary reading an alphabet in which letters are placed according to their frequency of appearance in French, he wrote his novel with his blinks.


When reading the book, I was often reminded of the two analogies in the title: one between the diving bell and the oppressive imprisonment of his unmoving body, the other between the butterfly and the liberating power of his mind. Bauby’s depiction of his butterfly is inspiring and thoughts evoking. It makes me wonder about the relationship between the self-conscious part and self-unconscious part in our bipartite brain, as well as the relationship between the brain and the environment.


From my first impression, Bauby’s account of things in his memory seems unusually vivid. As he was mind-savoring the fine French cuisine, or mind-walking on a street with his former girlfriend, I can almost picture those courses and those streets in my head. However, I find it quite hard to recall many of the scenes, smells or tastes that I think I’m supposed to remember. It seems that we are better at retrieving old memories when parts of our senses are shut down, so our brain won’t be distracted by current inputs. This reminds me of a game my friends and I played: we put up a song, and then try to sing another song without getting distracted. I always fail; I just can’t remember the music with another song playing, no matter how familiar it is. I feel this might as well be related to the functional compensation mechanism in our brain. I once watched a documentary on this topic. The researchers conducted an experiment. They first trained the participants to recognize the Braille by hand, and tested the accuracy of their reading. Next, they covered the eyes of the participants and make them live in darkness for one week, then they tested them for the accuracy again. It turned out that the participants’ accuracy of reading after their “dark period” was higher than their accuracy before that. Results of neuroimaging also showed that after living “blind”, the brain regions related to vision can be activated when they are using their tactile sense. The research suggests that our brain can compensate the loss of one function by enhancing some others. When it comes to the case of Bauby, it seems that he could remember better because his motion functions were inhibited.


Another thing that draws my attention is Bauby’s words about his hearing: “…and my left ear amplifies and distorts all sounds farther than ten feet away.” (95) After our class discussion about processing vision, I realize that the way our brain is wired always limit and affect how we communicate with the outer world, and hearing is no exception. For Bauby, the stroke altered his brain’s wiring and therefore he couldn’t hear in the same way as he used to. What he said at the end of that chapter is even more interesting:


…when blessed silence returns, I can listen to the butterflies that flutter inside my head. To hear them, one must be calm and pay close attention, for their wingbeats are barely audible. Loud breathing is enough to drown them out. This is astonishing: my hearing does not improve, yet I hear them better and better. I must have butterfly hearing (97).


Apparently his having “butterfly hearing” is just a figurative use of language, but it offers me a direction of thinking about the bipartite nature of our brain. Do the butterflies just refer to the freedom of thought, or they can be dreams as well? Dream is probably the ultimate form of “free thinking”; during dreams, our conscious selves communicate less with our unconscious selves and receive fewer inputs from the environment. We enter an alternate world, one constructed by our own brain. When I dream, nothing in my dream feels less real than the “real world”, until I wake up and return to the confinement of “reality”. So, is the “I” freer in dream or in reality?


Of course there would be different answers. But perhaps Bauby’s experience can bring a new perspective to the topic. Indeed, in his imagination, he could wander in places he was unable to go, he could achieve things he was unable to do, but it is his blinks – the only bridge connecting “him” and the world – that enable him to affect the outer world. We are touched and impressed and inspired by his story of a liberated mind, and it was written by his blinking of an eye. Without the blinking, we would never hear things from his conscious self, the person we regard as “him”, and the “he” would really be buried alive in his own body. During the course, I learned so many things about the abilities of our nervous system. The brain is capable of creating vision of things that are missing, reconstructing the memory based on some “labels” stored in our brain, etc. There seems to have no boundary for how much and what the brain can construct. It is so fascinating that I often forget the importance of the communication between our brain and the environment. If the brain is an artist, then the environment should be its source of inspiration and palette for expression. With this understanding, now I can truly appreciate the way we concluded our course: different parts of brain interact with each other to create the activities of the brain, and different brains interact with each other and the environment to create the activities of our society.


Interesting enough, I started reading “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” for its value in neuroscience study, but what it actually brings is more than the thoughts about the brain. To me, it’s not just a celebration of the power of mind, but more of a book about using this power to its full extent. Our brains possess great ability of changing the world, but the world is not solely a creation of our brain – it can change our brains, too. To make the butterfly of our mind beautiful, we need to let it fly when it can.