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Learning To Live With A Void In Her Brain In 'Head Case'


For most of her life, Cole Cohen had a hard time with all kinds of things. She'd get lost all of the time. She couldn't do math to save her life. The whole concept of time was hard for her to grasp. Her parents took her to doctor after doctor, and there were all kinds of tests and experiments with medication, but no real diagnosis until she was 26 years old. Cole Cohen got her first MRI and finally, there was an explanation. There was a hole in her brain; a hole in her brain the size of a lemon. Her memoir, titled "Head Case," is a darkly funny exploration of what that discovery meant to her. Cole Cohen joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

COLE COHEN: Thank you for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's talk about what life was like before this revelation. I mentioned your propensity to get lost. We're not talking about being in a new place and getting confuses as a lot of us might do. You got lost in, like, big box stores that you had been to before. Can you describe that sensation, that feeling of not knowing where you are in a situation like that?

COHEN: Yeah. I know that sensation every time I go grocery shopping. You know, you want to get a jar of peanut butter. You have a memory of where that jar of peanut butter is, and I just don't have that in my brain. I don't store that information. So it's like a discovery every time.

MARTIN: I'd love for you to read an example of one of the symptoms. You have a hard time with numbers, even references to numbers. And you write about this in the book when you're taking driver's ed. Do you mind reading that bit?

COHEN: Sure. That would be great.

(Reading) When I learned how to drive, the instructor tells me to think of the steering wheel as the face of a clock. Put my left hand at nine, my right hand at three. I stare at her with horror and decide to make a random guess. She repeats her instructions again and again, until she forcibly takes my hands and places them on the wheel. No, like this. I keep taking my hands off the wheel as I turn the car, and then I place them back in an incorrect position. I don't notice until the teacher corrects me. I make continuing attempts at three-point turns around the empty high school parking lot until eventually our hour-long session is over. Next week, we do the same thing again. After about three sessions of this, she gives up.

MARTIN: So with this diagnosis, I mean, was it empowering to some degree? Was it embarrassing? I mean, do you tell people? I mean, clearly, you wrote a memoir about it, but did you start calling your friends and being like, this is why - this is why I do this stuff?

COHEN: Yeah, actually I did start calling friends. And it's a huge relief. To be able to know why has made all the difference in the world for me. And I could have just as easily gone my entire life without knowing. So I really don't think of it as negative information at all because it's allowed me to have a huge essential understanding of who I am that I could have completely missed out on if I had never gotten an MRI.

MARTIN: You talk in the book about how music was a sanctuary of sorts for you, that it helped you get through a lot of downtimes. How did that help you?

COHEN: I think there are a couple different ways it helped me. One is that I find repetition very soothing. And so I found, like, I was not just listening to songs that repeated, but I was listening to punk music, which repeats a lot. And I found that I was really craving these repeating musical structures. I also think that it helped as an emotional outlet. And I'm still a big music person. And it's interesting because I think that a lot of people who are neuro-diverse, with different brains, you know, react to music more strongly. There's that whole book, "Musicophilia" with Oliver Sacks. Like I really relate to those stories.

MARTIN: Is there a particular piece, like, that's a go-to piece for you?

COHEN: Yeah. There's a song by a band called The Fall. The Fall actually has a song called "Repetition Repetition."


THE FALL: (Singing) We dig repetition.

COHEN: I really love The Fall in part because they have so much repetition and yet no song is ever the same.

MARTIN: Cole Cohen. Her new memoir is called "Head Case: My Brain And Other Wonders." Thanks so much for talking with us, Cole.

COHEN: Thank you, Rachel.


THE FALL: (Singing) We dig repetition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.