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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Shell-shocked in Mrs. Dalloway. No, Virginia, It's Not Mental Illness

According to new research reported in the New York Times on June 10th (Thank you, reporter Robert Worth), Modern Warfare--or the explosions that accompany modern warfare literally scars parts of the brain. 
Yes, the symptoms of Shell-shock may not be mental illness caused by the traumas of war, but the result of scarring in important parts of the brain, like those associated with sleep. 

We first learned this in WWI Trench warfare when soldiers stuck in deep pits encountered percussive forces en masse for the first time. That guy on the lower left, staring out into space, has the thousand mile stare typical of shell shock. 

Here are the lyrics from a song in that era: 

"Perhaps you're broke and paralyzed

Perhaps your memory goes. 

But it's only just called shell shock 

For you've nothing there that shows." 

For all those years--over a hundred years--nobody quite knew what the problem was. Virginia Wolf, with her constant headaches and mental breakdowns, put herself in a soldier's shoes and gave us the astonishing character of Septimus Warren Smith. 

But it seems she was wrong. 

This photo by Greg Kahn of the New York Times shows Dr. Daniel Perl holding two slides, one showing normal brain tissue (below) and the upper showing tissue from a brain whose owner was the victim of explosions. 

They look very different, don't they? 

And that damage is not--at least so far--reversible or treatable. 

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