Treasure Hunt

  • Published1 Jun 2011
  • Reviewed1 Jun 2011
  • Author
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

The 2011 Brain Awareness Video Contest winning video, The Treasure Hunt, was created by Shiree Heath, a graduate student at The University of Queensland in Australia. The video focuses on aphasia, the loss of a person’s ability to speak or understand spoken or written language due to disease or injury of the brain. The animation tells of a child’s quest to uncover his grandfather’s “buried” words, much like a treasure hunt. Along the way, the “hunt” explains how the brain processes language and how that process goes awry in aphasia.

Image of a brain on a treasure map

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I've always loved hearing stories and my Grandpa told them best. He'd tell me of pirate adventures in search of a treasure chest. But then something weird happened, out of the blue one day. He couldn't tell me stories because his words had gone away. They told me he had aphasia, it's a funny word but not a joke. My Grandpa got aphasia because of something called a stroke. You see, blood flows through little vessels like water through a drain but if that blood flow stops you can get damage to your brain. I can show you what it looks like - here Grandpa's scan is on the right. You can see the difference, his brain is dark at the damaged site.

So we know about his stroke and how areas of the brain can die. Now listen to Grandpa. He makes mistakes no matter how hard he tries. 

“No… I can’t say it.” 

“Sword” 

“kr…k…k…kr…kr… krake… no” 

“dolphin” 

“peakin” 

“No… I know what it is too.” 

“I know that one, that’s easy. K…kar…kar… yeah, no I can’t say it.” 

Because it’s so hard for him to name people, objects, and birds, I set off on a treasure hunt to find what happened to his words. I imagined I was a pirate and captain of a great big boat, searching for what had become of the stories I loved most. 

To find out what was wrong with Grandpa’s words and make him proud, I had to understand how we get from just a thought to speaking out loud. Luckily I had a map to follow and I could learn things along the way. So what happens from thought to talk, something we all do every day? 

When we see a picture of a parrot and look at it with our eyes this activates the brain at the back of the head – now that’s a surprise! From there we process features like its beak and brightly colored rear. All this information becomes active at about the level of your left ear. Nearby in the brain we find “parrot” and the sounds that make the word, then that passes to another section and we can finally name the bird. 

So I’ve learned that just to say one word the brain there’s many stages. For Grandpa, one stage is missing, like a book that’s missing pages. For now the hunt is over, and although my journey has been long, I’ve learned about stroke, aphasia, and the things that can go wrong. The treasure that I have found isn’t diamonds, pearls, or gold. It’s the story of Grandpa’s aphasia, and I’ll make sure that it gets told.