Seizing Up

By Shamus Posted Thursday Oct 26, 2006

Filed under: Personal 8 comments

As a result of the difficult business with my daughter, my wife and I have needed to learn a bit about seizures. Well, I did, anyway. My wife has training in working with the disabled, and has seen a lot of seizures of various types.

In 1971 my father, who was 29 years old, had a cerebral hemorrhage. His brain was bleeding. He collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. A couple of days later he woke up. The good news was that there was no obvious brain damage. The bad news was that all that blood had formed a clot in his brain that would kill him sooner or later if it wasn’t removed.

I’m sure if this happened today they would remove the clot with lasers, or send self-replicating nanites in after it, or maybe just use the transporter and beam the sucker out of there. But we’re talking about 1971 here, which means they had just enough medical knowledge to know that this was not a job for blunt tools and fire.

There was no way around it – to get the clot out they were going to have to go through some brain tissue. That brain tissue would be destroyed, and he would suffer some level of brain damage. So, the choice was to live with this time-bomb in his head, waiting for it to kill him at any moment, or to go in and destroy parts of his otherwise healthy brain. It wasn’t much of a choice. They did the procedure. Afterwards the left side of his body was paralyzed, and he suffered from epilepsy. As a result, he would need to take anti-seizure medication for the rest of his life. He eventually recovered limited use of his left leg, but from that day on his left arm hung limp at his side and he never made use of it again.

I was born about six months later. Without getting into a bunch of irrelevant family history, let’s just say I didn’t see much of him for the next twelve years. I got to know him as I entered my teens and eventually I began to grasp what had really happened to this guy and who he used to be.

I never saw him during a seizure, but the idea stuck in my mind. At the time I related it to the only thing I understood: computers. If you trash a block of memory, the computer can continue to operate just fine until the moment it reaches into that corrupted or missing block. At that point anything can happen, from a minor application hiccup to a full-on systemwide crash. It all depends on what was in the lost block of data and what it was being used for.

CC Photo by orangeacid
I just thought the seizure was the organic version of the blue screen of death. The brain would try to access something from the destroyed sections, which would lead to some sort of serious fault and reboot. I had it all mapped out. The memory loss was a result of files being left open: all that stuff the person was thinking about gets lost because it was never moved from memory (short term memory) to storage (long term memory). The shaking was from bad data being sent to the peripherals, just like a crash will often cause the sound card to emit a bunch of noise, or make the drives spin endlessly, or cause one of the drives to eject for no reason. When people have seizures, they often suffer a little more damage that can make future seizures more likely and more potent. In the same way, continually having hard lockups can eventually trash system files or bits of the registry, making the system more unstable. Anti-seizure meds usually slow the person down, reducing mental acuity a bit. This is sort of like limiting yourself to having one application running at a time on the computer, which can avoid crashes by not taxing the system.

Of course, everything I’ve just said is complete and utter nonsense. Computer crashes and seizures in the brain are not the same thing, and it is only my ignorance of the latter that made it possible for me to construct these parallels.

Despite the fact that I know this is mostly baloney, I still keep trying to think of things using this metaphor. I guess a bad metaphor is more comforting than cluelessness.

Yeah I know, this post is kinda wierd. Go figure.

UPDATE: Steven has a much more correct metaphor in the comments below.


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8 thoughts on “Seizing Up

  1. BeckoningChasm says:

    Actually, I think the parallels are quite good. It’s almost always helpful to frame new situations in the language of scenarios that are pretty well understood. While the match may not be exact, any glimmer of understanding helps in the larger picture.

    This is sort of like limiting yourself to having one application running at a time on the computer, which can avoid crashes by not taxing the system.

    Welcome to Windows Server (any flavor).

  2. Heather says:

    That’s what I just told him. It is a fairly good analogy, though not perfect. In Rachel’s case it is much more like having brown outs and having the computer reboot.

  3. It’s completely the wrong mental model.

    The best everyday analogy to a seizure is holding a microphone in front of the speaker it’s feeding. A seizure is a case of feedback gone out of control.

    As a result the nerves involved in the feedback loop all energize out of control and start screaming, and every nerve they are connected to can’t work because of the noise.

    The seizure ends because nerves eventually fatigue and their firing threshold rises to the point where the feedback loop gets choked off.

    (I have a family member who is subject to seizures; I learned about them a long time ago.)

  4. In a petit mal seizure the effects are only local. In a grand mal seizure the noise spreads to the entire frontal portion of the brain and prevents it from working properly.

  5. Shamus says:

    Which would explain the extreme fatigue and loss of focus post-seizure.

    Very interesting, thanks Steven.

  6. orangeacid says:

    Hey there, the license on the photo you have used requires you to attribute it to me somewhere. Just for future reference, like, you are welcome to use it here and to know that someone is using my pictures makes me very happy :-)

    Thanks for linking to the file on Flickr anyhow. Sorry to hear about your father, and that’s an interesting ananology you have there.

  7. Brendan says:

    Petit mal and grand mal seizures sound a lot better in Latin than English. Petit mal is, directly translated, little bad, where as grand mal is very bad. Much less formal, but much more descriptive

  8. OEP says:

    We don’t really use petit mal or grand mal anymore. Seizures are described as Simple Partial, Complex Partial, or Generalized.

    Simple Partial Seizures are seizures that affect only one part of the brain and stay limited to that part of the brain. This can be a motor area resulting in abnormal movement, a sensory area resulting in abnormal sensations such as smells, or tastes.

    Comples Partial Seizures start in one area and extend to the entire brain causing loss of consciousness.

    Generalized Seizures affect the entire brain and cause loss of consciousness.

    “Petit Mal” seizures are actually now called Absence seizures and are a type of generalized seizure.

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