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.