The Awakenings story was told in a book by Oliver Sacks and later in
wonderful movie of the same title. Dr. Sacks went further than anyone
else of his time in honestly approaching and documenting the strange
happenings of post- encyphalitic Parkinson's patients. But did he go far
enough? His ideas are just the beginning. They make a wonderful
playground for those who are brave.
Let's start with patients who appear to be a total vegetables, not
conscious but not entirely unconscious either, unable or unwilling to
move or speak. They're lost in some mental netherland while their
bodies are stuck here on earth.
Yet when you throw a ball in their direction, they reach up and catch it.
And they do this while the rest of their body is still stiff and
motionless. Dr. Sacks said that these patients "borrow the will of the
ball". That was a very strange concept in the 1960's, but now science is
close to understanding this phenomena.
Now, for example, many psychology books are willing to openly discuss
hypnosis. In hypnosis, the patient is said to "borrow the will of the
hypnotist". This means that they voluntarily set aside their own will and
follow the will of another person, the hypnotist. It's not something the
hypnotist forces on a person, but something the person voluntarily takes
It is only one step further to say that a person would borrow the will of
an inanimate object. And it's only one step beyond that to say that a
person would do so involuntarily, because of a pathological biochemical
process. But let's stop to ask a few questions that Mr. Sacks did not
ask in Awakenings.
The first question is, "How does the patient know what the will of the
ball is?" How does the patient know that the ball doesn't want to go
flying and bouncing around the room? ("Whee! I'm flying! Yahoo...
boing, boing, boing...", the little ball screamed in delight.) The
patient in this case is not only seeing and catching the ball, but is
also involved in a complex mental process deciphering exactly what the
will of the ball is and how to obtain or fulfill it.
The patient's mental process must work something like this:
Step 1: Physically see the ball moving in the air. Step 2: Determine
that the ball is moving towards them. Step 3: Figure out the various
"wills" that the ball could have. Step 4: Choose the correct or best
choice of "wills" from among the various options of things that a ball
could want. Step 5 Decide that the ball's will needs to be met. Step 6
Decide that he/she is the person who should meet that need. Step 7
Decide that he/she is the person who will meet that need. Step 8 Send a
message down to the arm, hand, and fingers to get moving. Step 9
Physically move the arm and all related parts up to catch the ball. Step
10 Send a message from the hand to the brain that the ball has been
caught and it's will has been met and is now complete. Step 11 Send a
message to the arm, hand, and fingers to stop moving. Step 12 Physically
stop the arm and all related parts from moving, causing the arm to stay
suspended in mid air, ball in hand.
This is a very complex mental process that seems to be occuring in people
whom we would consider total "vegetables".
The next question is, "Why do they follow the will of some objects and
not others?" They should be running around the hospital doing all kinds
of things with the myriads of objects that happen to be there. They
should, for example, run to the curtains and open them or shut them.
Pick up a pencil off of the table and start writing. Pick up the
telephone and call somebody. Instead, they're stuck in their
wheelchairs, immobile and inattentive.
This leads to the idea that objects have wills of varying strengths.
The will of a wheelchair to be sat in, for example, must be stronger than
the will of the floor to be walked on. So, the person who follows the
will of the wheelchair then gets stuck there. The will of the wheelchair
to be sat in and the will of the floor to be walked on are mutually
exclusive. You really can't do both at the same time, even if you want
But the will of the ball to be caught and the will of the wheelchair to
be sat in are not mutually exclusive. So a patient sitting in a
wheelchair still has the ability to follow the will of the ball when it
comes flying towards him, without violating or sacrificing the will of
the wheelchair which he is already following.
In the Awakenings story, there's a woman who follows the pattern on the
floor as she walks. She can only walk to that place on the floor where
the pattern stops. When Dr. Sacks and his assistants paint the floor so
that the pattern continues to the wall, the patient can and does walk all
the way to the wall. To everyone's surprise, she heads straight to the
window and looks out.