Oliver Sacks on echolalia in Tourette’s syndrome

July 8, 2015

One of the neurological case studies in Oliver Sacks’s remarkable book An Anthropologist on Mars (1995) involves Dr Carl Bennett, a surgeon in British Columbia who has Tourette’s syndrome. Sacks spends a lot of time with Bennett at home, work, and play, to learn more about the condition and how it affects his daily life.

Oliver Sacks - an anthropologist on mars - seven paradoxical tales - book coverPeople with Tourette’s are often depicted stereotypically as beset by elaborate physical twitching and involuntary swearing and the like, but this oversimplifies a very complex condition. In Bennett’s case the Tourette’s never affects his surgery, but outside of such contexts the compulsions of touching and vocalising do present to a striking degree.

Bennett’s Tourette vocalisations are not so much swears and other taboo expressions as ‘juicy’ phrases devoid of real meaning (at least in his use of them), uttered over and over again. To satisfy this urge, Bennett systematically collects odd names. One passage in the book describes how, after a calm bout of morning exercise – half an hour on an exercise bike, smoking a pipe, reading a medical book – Bennett’s echolalia returns in force:

he kept digging at his belly, which was trim, and muttering, ‘Fat, fat, fat . . . fat, fat, fat . . . fat, fat, fat,’ and then, puzzlingly, ‘Fat and a quarter tit.’ (Sometimes the ‘tit’ was left out.)

‘What does it mean?’ I asked.

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Scott Kim’s symmetrical alphabet

October 18, 2012

As a child I used to draw things like animals and people using only the letters in their names. I would stretch and contort each word’s curves to evoke the shape of what it referred to. It’s a game I’m sure many have played. And I liked drawing faces that were also faces when you turned the page upside-down – like this matchbox set, but simpler.

So you can imagine the appeal ambigrams held. There’s an example above, or see Wikipedia for a basic introduction. I think I first encountered these shapes, also known as inversions, in Douglas Hofstadter’s books. They involve an artfully contrived symmetry whereby a word can be rotated, reflected or otherwise shifted but remains readable.

I recently came across the beautiful ambigram below: a perfectly symmetrical mirror alphabet from puzzle-designing wizard Scott Kim.



It’s immediately recognisable as the modern Latin alphabet, but the ingenious warping and blending required to make it symmetrical gives it a striking, quite exotic appearance. Ambigrams are “so purely visual,” Kim has said: “You can explain them in words, but it’s like describing a dance.”

The symmetrical alphabet is available as a poster, and you can see more of the artist’s ambigrams, many of them animated, on his page of inversions. The image is copyright © Scott Kim, scottkim.com, and is used with permission.