The Frontal Cortex

The Runner

John Branch has an absolutely fascinating and beautifully told article in the Times today on Diane Van Deren, one of the premier ultra-runners in the world. Last year, she won the Yukon Arctic Ultra 300, which follows the treacherous trail of the Yukon sled dog race for hundreds of miles. (She was the first woman to ever complete the 430 mile version of the race.) This weekend she’s participating in a race in Colorado that has a total elevation gain of 33,000 feet. But here’s the neuroscientific twist: Diane is missing a chunk of her right temporal lobe, which makes it easier for her to engage in such stunning feats of endurance:

Don Gerber, who works at Craig Hospital, a rehabilitation hospital in Englewood, Colo., for people with brain or spinal-cord injuries, said that Van Deren “can go hours and hours and have no idea how long it’s been.” Her mind carries little dread for how far she is from the finish. She does not track her pace, even in training. Her gauge is the sound of her feet on the trail.

“It’s a kinesthetic melody that she hits,” Gerber said. “And when she hits it, she knows she’s running well.”

Of course, such a timeless existence – Van Deren seems like a perfect example of flow – comes with some real costs. She also experiences severe memory problems:

Van Deren struggles to remember people she recently met and has missed flights simply by getting too involved in a conversation at the gate.

“She never remembers where she parked,” Page said. “Never, not once, to this day.”

The lapses are not always amusing. Her husband placed photo collages around the house to help his wife remember vacations and family milestones that slipped past her memory’s reach. Robin Van Deren, the 21-year-old middle child, recently told her mother that she lost a part of her in the surgery. They cried together.

Brenda Milner (at least according to my neuroanatomy textbook) helped pioneer the study of right temporal lobe deficits. She emphasized the lack of visual memory, which is certainly apparent in Diane. But I’m most intrigued by the absence of time awareness – when Diane is running it’s as if she stops thinking about the clock. Interestingly, such awareness seems to depend in large part on the right hemisphere.


  1. #1 Vince J
    July 9, 2009

    Interesting to see if the “absence of time awareness” has any effect on the aging process. Proof, not just theory or philosophy.

  2. #2 Eamon
    July 9, 2009

    Run runner!

    (Apologies for the Geek Infiltration)

  3. #3 Thomas Schroeder
    July 10, 2009

    The right side of the brain processes new, novel, and unfamiliar things. If it quieted though, it fails to notify a person about the onset of new feelings (such as boredom or any discomfort), which partly explains why Diane can run great distances in extreme conditions. (Remember, Diane’s left side operates with reduced interruptions from the right side of the brain because of her lobotomy.)

    Similarly, I used to prefer to run without my glasses or contacts because I would otherwise establish new checkpoints and then focus on the associated distance I would need to run to get there (and subsequently “feel” tired and start walking!). Reducing my ability to see, I instead focused on the music I was listening to and thought about things (things aside from running), which was enough of a distraction to keep me running.

    Similar effects of quieting a portion of the brain are shown when people experience flow, such as a person forgetting to eat because he’s been so deeply consumed by his flow experience. In this situation, enough time has passed and the person needs nourishment, yet the brain mechanism responsible for informing him of this need has effectively been silenced. In short, during moments of flow, a select portion of the brain becomes extremely active, effectively silencing other portions of the brain.

    In regards to time estimates, with the right side of the brain quieted, a person is not taking in as much new information, so his estimates of time have less basis, which commonly makes estimates less accurate. People with an active right side of the brain are taking in new information, so their estimates of time are more accurate because they have more external things in which to base their estimates on. Similarly, because Diane is without part of the right side of her brain (and because of her extensive and increasing training), she can run for long periods of time because she isn’t as aware of how much time has passed because she’s not taking in much new information.

    Dr. Elhonon Goldberg brilliantly and clearly explains a deeper understanding of the halves of the brain in his excellent and easy-to-read book about the human brain, “The Wisdom Paradox.” If you’re interested in understanding the brain, I highly recommend it.

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