How aphasic patients understood the presidential debate

Susie Neilson writes: In The President’s Speech, a 1985 essay by the late neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, he observes a group of people with aphasia, a language disorder, as they laugh uproariously at the television. The cause of their amusement is an unnamed actor-turned United States president, presumably Ronald Reagan, addressing his audience: “There he was, the old Charmer, the Actor, with his practised rhetoric, his histrionisms, his emotional appeal…The President was, as always, moving—but he was moving them, apparently, mainly to laughter. What could they be thinking? Were they failing to understand him? Or did they, perhaps, understand him all too well?

Aphasic patients have a heightened ability to interpret body language, tonal quality, and other non-verbal aspects of communication due to a disruption of their speech, writing, reading, or listening abilities. Each aphasic person may have disruptions in any or all of these areas. Usually, the damage comes from a stroke or other head trauma — many people become aphasic in the wake of combat, for example, or after car accidents. “The key,” says Darlene Williamson, a speech pathologist specializing in aphasia and president of the National Aphasia Association, “is intelligence remains intact.”

In this sense, Williamson says, having aphasia is akin to visiting a foreign country, where everyone is communicating in a language you are conversational in at best. “The more impaired your language is,” she says, “the harder you’re working to be sure that you’re comprehending what’s going on.” How do we do this? By paying more careful attention to the cues we can understand, Williamson says. [Continue reading…]

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