Photo Of The Day

A scan showing no activity in the right parietal and occipital regions of Simon Lewis's brain. Were you to meet the upbeat, affable Lewis, you wouldn't know there's a high-tech device helping to move his left foot smoothly, or that he's "technically unsighted" (his computer has an extra-sharp monitor so that he can see it), or that he lives in "flat time" — past, present and future all seem much the same to him.

A scan showing no activity in the right parietal and occipital regions of Simon Lewis’s brain. Were you to meet the upbeat, affable Lewis, you wouldn’t know there’s a high-tech device helping to move his left foot smoothly, or that he’s “technically unsighted” (his computer has an extra-sharp monitor so that he can see it), or that he lives in “flat time” — past, present and future all seem much the same to him.

The Man with the Missing Brain

The Story of a Horrific Accident and the Life that Followed it…

 If Simon Lewis’ life was a movie, it would seem far too fantastical to be true. In the early 1990s, Lewis was a rising producer in Hollywood, fresh off the success of “Look Who’s Talking,” the  John Travolta-starring comedy about a talking baby that ended up being one of the top-grossing movies of 1989. Then, Lewis’ career came to a sudden end, after a car accident killed his wife, mangled Lewis’ body and obliterated a large part of his brain. Against all odds, Lewis survived, and over the course of the past couple of decades, he has largely recovered from near-total memory loss.

In 1994, he and his wife went to dinner to celebrate their new car, and they’re driving when a van blows through a stop sign in a residential street at 75 mph. Their car flies through the air, slams into a tree and lands in a garden. Simon’s wife was killed instantly, and Simon broke everything you could break and lost a third of one of his brain hemispheres. He spent the next decade and a half recovering one piece of surgery after another

“Are you ready for our drive then?” Simon Lewis, comes hobbling into his parents’ living room in Sherman Oaks, a suburb of the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles. An Englishman by birth, his public-school accent remains unsullied by nearly 40 years in the United States. “Brave man!” he chuckles.

“Brave” is one way of putting it. “Foolish”, another. After all, Lewis has constricted vision in his left eye, or “peripheral neglect” – he needs special glasses to see the road. He also suffers from a perceptual distortion known as “flat time”, which means he can’t distinguish the chronology of his memories. The upshot of this in the present is that he struggles with the sequence of events, such that if you play him a piece of film backwards, he likely won’t even notice.

“So the trouble is,” he explains, “if I see a pedestrian on the side of the street, I can’t tell if he’s going to cross or just stand there.”

But most of all, Lewis just hasn’t had much luck with cars. The reason for his impaired vision, his flat time and his limping gait is a road traffic accident 22 years ago. Crashes seldom make the news in Los Angeles, they are so routine. But when Lewis and his wife Marcy were brutally T-boned one evening in March 1994, the consequences were so shattering the Los Angeles Times ran it on the front page.

Here was a young couple driving home through Hancock Park, a well-heeled suburb of mansions and manicured lawns. Lewis was a thriving film producer of 36, best known for the huge comedy hit Look Who’s Talking, starring John Travolta, and Marcy, 27, was in marketing. They’d been married five months.

He had met Marcy by chance—a shared drive to a ski cabin on a vacation with mutual friends—less than two years earlier. By the time they reached Fresno, there had been no question; in a year, they were married. She was talkative and vivacious to his pale British bookishness. On a trip to Hawaii, she sunned on the sand while Simon scrunched into the narrow shadow of a palm tree, bent over scripts. Someone had once predicted Marcy would marry a left-handed Englishman. Simon was ambidextrous. Close enough, they decided. They adored each other.

And now Marcy is in the passenger’s seat. Simon has picked her up from work—at 27, she is marketing director at downtown L.A.’s Music Center—and they are back on the road. The two are celebrating their first major purchase together: a sleek new Infiniti only two days old. In the way that one splurge begets another; they are treating themselves to dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant. Had Simon paused to tie a shoe before getting in the car, or had Marcy made one more phone call, everything would have ended differently.

It’s hard now not to see that March night unfolding cinematically- as Lewis himself, at a pitch meeting or on a set, might have described it. Random events are inserted into a timeline, actions imbued with meaning. A two-day-old car bearing a young couple to dinner assumes all the hope and innocence of youth. A white ’78 Chevy van, also bought two days earlier, turns on to a tree-lined residential street, and a horrible plot is set in motion.

Around 7 p.m., Simon and Marcy are heading west on Beverly Boulevard, nearly at the restaurant. Marcy mentions that they are close to her boss’s home, which has recently been renovated, and suggests they make a detour to see it. At that moment the white van screams full-speed through a stop sign at McCadden Place. Maybe the driver is thinking he will miraculously thread the five lanes of traffic. Maybe he is too drunk to think.

The van rams Lewis’s side of the Infiniti at 75 miles per hour, bulldozing it sideways across the remaining lanes until it hits the curb. There is nowhere to go but up. The car flies and spins through the air until its path is interrupted by a maple tree on the corner of Beverly and McCadden. It slams into the tree several feet up the trunk, then comes to rest in a nearby garden.

A screenwriter couple—colleagues of Lewis’s, incredibly—are driving to dinner when they come upon the accident. They park and run over. Lewis’s body has been crushed into the collapsed space between the center console, the driver’s-side door, and the steering column. Standing just two feet away, his colleagues do not recognize him.

Moving to the passenger side, they see that neither occupant can be removed without dismantling the car. The wife hands flares to a meter maid who’d been in the area and waits for help. An off-duty paramedic has already called 911. No survivors, he reports.

It takes over an hour and two Jaws of Life tools for the rescue team to splay the Infiniti open. The car still bears dealer plates, and with no access to Lewis’s wallet, the police scrawl “UNK” on the collision report. The driver of the van is a mystery, too. That fellow sprinting up McCadden was not getting help: He was putting as much distance as possible between himself and the newlyweds whose lives he’d just annihilated.

The extraction team shears the roof and doors off the Infiniti. Marcy’s face has no blood on it; she looks like she is sleeping. Simon, for his part, is shattered in every way possible. When at last they get to him, rescuers are shocked to discover he has a pulse. They slice through his seatbelt, cut off his clothes, and ease his broken body into an ambulance.

Inside his smashed skull, his brain has begun to swell. Ruptured blood vessels leak, causing more oxygen to be needed, thereby causing the swelling to increase and, with nowhere for it to go, to destroy more and more brain tissue. The paramedics slip on a bag-valve mask and flow meter that feeds oxygen into his lungs, but pressure within his skull is skyrocketing. As the team speeds him to Cedars-Sinai, two miles away, blood begins to trickle from his ears.

Later, a doctor will suggest that being stuck in the wreckage all that time might have kept him alive. Because rescuers couldn’t extract and wrap him in blankets, Lewis’s body temperature fell to hypothermic levels. Death went into slow-motion.

Because we saw too many soap operas as children, or because its contours are improbable, or because we just can’t bear to believe such a thing is real, there’s something otherworldly about a coma. In reality, of course, comas are simply mundane and awful. Loved ones don’t whisper just the right thing at just the right time, causing the patient magically to revive. More often at this level of injury, all that comes is death or a persistent vegetative state. A few hours at level three and doctors assume permanent damage to the brain, should the patient be lucky enough to wake at all. Lewis’s parents sat by their comatose son for four weeks.

Then one day in April, Lewis’s eyes opened.

Simon with his wife Marcy, who died in the crash. his memories are all equally vivid, which means even though his accident was 22 years ago, memories of the trauma and his wife’s death feel as close as those of the film he saw last week. “I remember my old life,” he says. “They’re very fond memories. But for a long time I couldn’t bring myself to recall my wife. Photo By Craig Schwartz.

Simon with his wife Marcy, who died in the crash. his memories are all equally vivid, which means even though his accident was 22 years ago, memories of the trauma and his wife’s death feel as close as those of the film he saw last week. “I remember my old life,” he says. “They’’re very fond memories. But for a long time I couldn’t bring myself to recall my wife. Photo By Craig Schwartz.

He looked around without curiosity. He didn’t feel reborn, as the formulation has it; he had no recollection of even having lived before, no sense of self, no sense of there being anybody or anything dwelling within. Nor did he seem to care. A voice from nowhere asked his name. How could a person just born into this world have a name? More compelling was his new conviction that time was somehow a river, and he was somehow in the midst of it, and it was somehow flowing from the future back toward him.

The voice asked again. What is your name?

“Simon,” his mouth murmured, his first word in a month.

“Do you know where you are?”

Less luck with this question. It seemed … a trick somehow. His eyes closed and sleep came over him. Later, he awoke with a sense of threat. His parents came into the room and he told them, “There are monsters in the mountains, but no one must know.” His mother promised to take care of it.

Later, on the way home, Lewis’s father turned to her.

“I’ve just realized something,” he said. “Simon doesn’t know he was in an accident.”

The next morning, his parents hung a sign on the door to room 7123: “No visitors allowed. Do not refer to patient’s wife.”

The days ran together during those first couple weeks. When awake, Lewis marveled at light and shadow, was staggered by the sparkling of the sun on the blinds. At times he felt a kind of ecstasy. Other times he was immobilized in a physical world he didn’t recognize. He saw an object on a wall and eventually came to remember that it was called a clock. But he didn’t know what it did or how time worked.

At one point a nurse offered to give Lewis a bed bath. His jaw was wired shut so he smiled a yes. He thought she’d offered a bird bath. He wondered why she thought he was a bird, but the idea didn’t seem strange. That spring his mother mentioned the Oscars. “What’s that?” he mumbled. He took to watching shows and movies based on children’s books: The Wind in the Willows, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He was curious about Toad of Toad Hall. He considered Narnia a natural and real place.

Lewis’s grandmother used to complain of loneliness and boredom, of how all she had were the four walls. With the cruel innocence of youth, he would say, he and his brothers joked that she never mentioned the ceiling or floor. But at the hospital he wasn’t bored or lonely. He could achieve neither state of mind any more than a goldfish could.

One night in April, Lewis experienced a strange feeling of deep, ancient memory. It felt familiar, and he found himself recalling, vaguely, a series of visions from his weeks in the coma. They were primal and rudimentary—different from ordinary dreams. The visions returned frequently during his time in the hospital, seemingly born of a mind far wilder than the one he’d known before the accident.

Weeks out of his coma, he found himself aware of a river again. He was on a boat, rain drumming the cabin roof. A woman stood by his side. He realized she’d been by his side through other memories, too. All at once, sometime before dawn, he remembered Marcy. The feeling was pure joy, a sense of completion.

He couldn’t wait to tell someone the wonderful news. At last a nurse came to turn him.

“I’m married to Marcy!” he whispered through his teeth.

“That’s very nice, Simon,” she replied, then went to phone his parents. The remaining hours of the night were his last with the full happiness of Marcy’s love. He did not question where she was or why she had not been mentioned. In the morning his parents returned.

“I’m married,” he repeated. “To Marcy.”

His mother looked at him and prepared to do the last thing a parent ever wishes to do: She took her son’s happiness away.

“She died, Simon. You were in an accident and Marcy died.”

Simon Lewis's car after the crash in 1994.

Simon Lewis’s car after the crash in 1994.

The White Chevy.

The White Chevy.

Lewis was lost in a fog of grief and medical deluge. In addition to his skull, his collarbone, pelvis, jaw, both arms, and all but two ribs had also been crushed. A third of the right hemisphere of his brain had been destroyed. Each catastrophic injury bore its own constellation of crises. One day while Lewis was still at Cedars-Sinai, a doctor-in-training came to conduct a psychological evaluation. Before leaving, he leaned in with some words of wisdom.

“It’s difficult for you to come to terms with this now,” he said, and then brightened. “But you’ll look back one day and see how this experience made you a better, stronger person.”

Lewis was in no shape to confront the suggestion that his wife’s death would improve him. His mother, though, felt perfectly equal to the job. Stepping up to the man, she said, “We hope one day your wife dies this way and someone tells you it’s for the best.”

The days had turned to weeks for Lewis, and the weeks now turned to months. He would move back into his parents’ house that summer, 1994, but that was just the beginning of a seemingly endless medical journey. No sooner would he recuperate from one grueling surgery than he’d be back for another. The months turned to years. His recovery lasted a decade and a half.

He existed in a haze for much of that time—a one-man city of Los Angeles. He slept and he watched the pine trees in his parents’ backyard, sometimes for hours on end; he felt he could see them grow. He slept some more. Occasionally, he went with his mother to appointments, and after a number of years, he began to read and to appreciate movies again. But mostly he just existed, bobbing in and out of consciousness of the world outside his parents’ front door: the Oklahoma City bombing, Princess Diana’s death, the Unabomber, the rise of email and the Internet, Columbine, Monica Lewinsky, cell phones, Bush/Gore. Even 9/11 was an indistinct catastrophe very far from his small, quiet life down the hall from his parents.

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Twenty two years on, that crash continues to reverberate. Only this time, it’s a happier story, one that Lewis has told in a book, Rise and Shine, and before large audiences at numerous public events.

It’s the story of his astonishing recovery, and it not only gives hope to sufferers of traumatic brain injury (TBI), but provides proof, in the most dramatic fashion, of the brain’s incredible ability to regenerate and reorganise itself.

Doctors simply didn’t expect Lewis to live on the night of “the trauma,” as his mother Pat calls it.

When two Jaws of Life machines freed him from the wreckage, he’d sustained a broken skull, jaw, arms, clavicle, and pelvis, with compound fractures in nine ribs. And then there was the “catastrophic brain insult” he’d suffered – a stroke that destroyed a third of his right hemisphere and caused a contusion to the brainstem and severe internal bleeding. He was so bloated with blood that his brother David, who was called in to identify him on the operating table, remembers “this enormous Michelin man lying there with raccoon eyes.”

Lewis went into a coma that night – the most severe coma on the internationally accepted Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS). On a scale of three to 15, GCS3 means no motor response, no verbal response, and no visual response. It’s as close as one can get to death without actually dying. And although the Glasgow Scale is considered somewhat crude and subjective for a field as complex as traumatic brain injury, studies suggest that patients with GCS 3-5 have less than a 10 per cent chance of a survival with good outcomes, particularly if they fail to respond within two weeks of the injury. Lewis remained in that state for 31 days.

When he came to, Lewis was a shell. He had little awareness of his surroundings. He couldn’t read or write, and he had acute short-term amnesia – he wasn’t aware that he’d been in a crash at all. He struggled with language, attention, visual-spatial awareness, and basic comprehension.

Doctors deemed his cognitive function so low it was untestable – that is, an IQ below 50. It was likely, they said, that he would have to rely on others for even the most menial of tasks for the rest of his life.

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But then his recovery began. It has been a long road, littered with surgeries, and even now it isn’t over – but, today, Lewis has not only regained most of his cognitive function, he actually has an IQ as high as the one he had before the crash. He is an extraordinary medical phenomenon and gives hope to all those facing similar challenges.

The odds of surviving a coma are notoriously hard to predict, brain injury being the most complex of problems afflicting the most complex organ in the body. Some people do make amazing recoveries. Former cheerleader Sarah Scantlin, from Kansas, began talking 20 years after falling into a coma after a hit-and-run accident. Carrie Coons, an 86-year-old from New York, regained consciousness after a year and engaged in conversation. The Olympic rower James Cracknell has written a book, run marathons, and stood as an MEP, despite serious damage to his frontal lobe in a 2010 cycling accident.

But, in general, many patients struggle to regain full brain function and the odds of doing so fall off sharply the longer the coma continues. So when,the former Formula One driver Michael Schumacher emerged from a 24-week coma, medical experts were quick to manage the expectations of his supporters. Dr Ganesh Bavikatte, of the Walton Centre in Liverpool, which specialises in neurological issues, spoke of a long road to recovery, “filled with uncertainty and frustration.”

In Lewis’s case, it took a village to rebuild his mind – in his talks he attributes his progress to issues as disparate as circulation and jaw alignment. But he owes much of it to Dr Lois Provda, an educational therapist in West Hollywood – not a ground-breaking scientist, or prize-winning researcher, just a conscientious practitioner who helps those who have slipped down the learning curve.

When he was sent to her, in October 1995, his IQ had climbed significantly to 89, just a point below the lower edge of “normal” (between 90 and 110) on the Revised Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. But when she was finished with him in February 1997 – after three sessions a week, with gaps for the occasional surgery – Lewis had an IQ of more than 151, close to so-called “genius” levels.

Dr Provda is elderly and struggles to remember the details of Lewis’s case, but her work speaks for itself. Today, Lewis is in possession of not a damaged brain but an overactive one. Bright eyed, beaming and permanently cheerful, he’s like an effusive academic, propelled from tangent to tangent by his own enthusiasm. A Cambridge graduate (in law), he was always bright, much like his brothers, David and Jonathan, a barrister and stockbroker respectively. “All my boys are high calibre,” says Pat, with pride.

But only Lewis is missing a third of his right hemisphere and still capable of fielding questions about neuroplasticity and possible reforms to the education system, his pet subject. That he’s not a neuroscientist or policymaker, but a movie producer, just makes it all the more impressive.

“That’s why we chose Simon,” says Dr Suzy Walton, a psychologist and deputy chair of the RSA, who introduced Lewis when he spoke at the London-based organisation last year. “Plenty of people with brain injuries survive, but he also has ambition, drive, confidence and, on top of that, he puts himself out there as a public speaker, which means he’s able to cope with nerves and anxiety. He’s the only living example of someone with that degree of physical impairment who can function at that level.”

For Lewis, talks like the one he gave at the RSA are a cherished opportunity to spread the good news about the phenomenon of neuroplasticity; the process by which the brain changes the way it functions.

Until relatively recently neuroscientists believed each part of the brain had a well-defined, unchanging role; if it was damaged there was little you could do about it, you just had to learn to live with it. But it is now widely acknowledged that the brain is more versatile than that and that, with the right sort of cognitive training, it is possible to persuade other areas of the brain to take on, at least to some extent, the tasks formerly carried out by those areas that have been damaged.

“I remember this influential doctor from UCLA told me, ‘Looking at your recovery, it’s a miracle,’ ” says Lewis. “ And I just thought, ‘That’s not right. I’ve come this far because I’ve seen people who have helped me.’ There are techniques that rebuild the processes of your mind.”

Cognitive training is not new. It first emerged after the world wars, to treat the brain-injured soldiers returning home. And ever since, a body of research has accumulated, especially in the Seventies and Eighties, which honed the methods that Dr Provda used on Lewis. She evaluated him first, and then took him through a series of games and exercises to develop his deficient skills.

“She had me working with Kapla building blocks, and memorizing numbers backwards and forwards,” says Lewis. “I had to put cartoon images in sequence, to help me with cause and effect, the idea that one event leads to another. Another exercise was called Interactive Metronome, where I’d have to write things with a metronome clicking out a beat. It was exhausting!”

For Lewis, these techniques have implications for us all – not just the head-injured. “What my experience demonstrates is how much we can train the brain measurably and repeatedly,” he says. “And that applies to everyone. We need to start screening children at school who are falling behind, and treat their difficulties, rather than writing them off.” He believes “brain training” can help children diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia and those at risk of dementia.

And he’s not the only one. Today, cognitive training is big business. In the past decade especially, companies such as Lumosity, Posit, Nintendo and Cogmed have harnessed the language of physical fitness – “it’s a gym for the mind!” – to sell a multiplicity of apps, games and digital exercises that promise to, in the words of the Lumosity publicity, “build your cognitive reserve”. According to SharpBrains, a neuroscience market research consultancy, the global revenues of the brain training industry increased from $200 million in 2005 to $1.3 billion in 2013.

Scientists, however, are ambivalent about the claims such companies make. Very little of the research that shows brain training works (in those who have not been the victim of a severe brain injury) has been peer reviewed. And one study, published in 2010, which monitored the outcomes of 11,000 adults who took part in exercises designed to improve their reasoning, memory, attention and visual-spatial skills, concluded that they got better at carrying out the tasks themselves but were not able to transfer those improvements to other areas of life.

Headway, the British brain injury association, is also reluctant to set too much store by brain training games; it talks instead about “cognitive rehabilitation therapy” and stresses the importance of bespoke care plans tailored to each patient’s needs, which tend to be complex and multi-faceted. In the best case scenario, patients work with neuropsychologists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, social workers, physiotherapists, doctors, counsellors and cognitive behavioural therapists.

Intensive brain training exercises, in fact, can actually exhaust people, sap their confidence and end up being counter-productive, the association believes.

“It’s people’s attitudes and support system that really distinguish who recover well and who don’t,” says Jeffrey Kreutzer, the editor of Brain Injury magazine, and professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Patients who stay at home, and say, ‘I don’t need advice, I’ll figure it out myself, leave me alone.’ They do poorly. But someone who seeks out social relationships, volunteer work, does much better. Recovery isn’t just neuronal – it’s a process that involves family support, as well as a positive attitude.”

These factors undoubtedly played a part in Lewis’s recovery. His book Rise and Shine is, among other things, a catalogue of his family’s persistence in the face of setbacks – doctors making mistakes, surgeries to correct surgeries, and the dehumanising ordeal of the American health care system.

And it’s unlikely he would have fared much better in Britain. Despite there being, on average, 55 admissions to hospital for severe head injuries in the UK every day, and doctors acknowledging that proper rehabilitation is crucial to improving patients’ quality of life and long-term outcomes, the provision of services is extremely variable across the country. “Many people slip through the net and are discharged from hospital with little or no support,” says Richard Morris, a spokesman for Headway. “Helping these people access the help they need is one of our most important functions.”

Simon Lewis continues to receive treatment two decades after his accident and still has significant disabilities. His brain no longer communicates with the muscles that pick up his left foot, so in order to walk he relies on an ingenious device that senses his steps and stimulates the muscles accordingly. His reconstructed pelvis remains an issue, not to mention his vision problems and perception of time.

“My memories used to be like a photo album,” he says. “You could flick the pages and go back in time. But now, the album’s gone, all I’ve got are the photos, and I can’t tell what order they came in.”

Furthermore, his memories are all equally vivid, which means even though his accident was 22 years ago, memories of the trauma and his wife’s death feel as close as those of the film he saw last week. “I remember my old life,” he says. “They’re very fond memories. But for a long time I couldn’t bring myself to recall my wife.

“When I started writing Rise and Shine, I didn’t write her name. I still almost never say it because I know I’ll tear up. Because I do feel sad sometimes, when I think about how I don’t have a family. That’s the thing about brain injury, you get quite emotional. There’s no filter anymore.”

Nevertheless, Lewis remains overwhelmingly positive. “I never lose sight of the fact that I get a chance that my wife will never have. It’s a responsibility of survivors to never complain, and to make the most of what remains.” And in this new post-coma chapter of his life, he has found himself strangely unburdened. “I don’t feel anger anymore at all,” he says. “There are some emotions that have just melted away.”

He lives with his parents, both of them now retired. But at the desk in his bedroom, the seeds of his future independence are being sown. He’s back at work on the science fiction script that he was developing at the time of his accident. And writing this time around is a new adventure. He considers his perceptual quirks an asset, a fresh and creative take on life. His hearing is much more acute and, for Lewis, there’s even an upside to visual impairment.

“Have you heard of blindsight?” he asks, excitedly. “It’s a perfect example of neuroplasticity. I had a doctor hold up coloured cards outside of my field of vision, and I could guess the colours correctly even though I couldn’t see them! What happens is the visual information from the retina bypasses the conscious brain and is processed by the subconscious. So I’m constantly in touch with my subconscious. It’s like a waking dream!”

It’s time to see the waking dreamer behind the wheel, before it gets late and Lewis starts to tire. He has enough stacked against him as it is. The plan is to just pop around the corner for a coffee, maybe a mile or so. So we leave the house and buckle into his Lexus automatic, Lewis talking constantly as he goes.

“Right so let me put on my prismatic glasses [glasses that give him back his peripheral vision], make sure there’s nothing behind me. No that’s fine. Right, so I see that guy with the dog. The coast is clear. OK then!” And off we go, nice and smooth. It took him three tries to pass his driving test again, but he made it eventually, which was much more than a symbolic victory for Lewis – as ­everyone in this city knows, there’s just no life without driving in Los Angeles.

“You have to get back in the saddle, it’s the only way,” he says. “I once spoke at this community event for stroke victims – there were about 100 people there. And I was demonstrating the NESS, the device I use to help me walk. I’ll never forget, this man in a wheelchair asked, ‘When can I start jogging again?’ And I love that attitude – it’s so American. Not walking, ‘jogging!’ ”

So Lewis is nothing if not hopeful about his future. About the prospects of having a family, and children of his own. “It’s probably my head injury speaking, but I’d like to meet someone,” he says. “So I’ve started dating again! I met a lovely lady last week actually. I realise my income is limited for now, but you never know.”

“I’ve been so fortunate in my life if you think about it,” he says. “There’s something wildly improbable about recovering from my injuries. They were telling my brother in the ICU, ‘No one thinks he’s going to make it.’ I have everything to hope for.”

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Shortly after Lewis came out of his coma, doctors figured out that he has a condition that actually allows him to see things with his subconscious. How does that work?

It’s a condition called blindsight. If I were to hold up four fingers in front of him he wouldn’t see them if they’re in his blind area, but if I was later going to ask him how many fingers I had held up, it would feel like guessing to him, but he would say 4. It was something his doctor diagnosed after the accident. Normally we take in visual information through the main neural path, but if this path is damaged, there’s this little known backup mode. It’s a much more primitive neural pathway that’s associated mostly with reptiles and smaller mammals, that allows visual information to go straight to his subconscious. When we’re driving home at the end of the long day, for example, we might be talking to someone and then glance up and realize we drove the last 5 miles without noticing. That was our subconscious working.

How common is this?

Blindsight is extremely rare because you have to get your brain injury just right. You have to get it severe enough that it destroys the neural pathway but not so severe that it destroys the operating system altogether.

What does this tell us about the human brain?

We know so little about the brain; neuroscientists are just starting to discover how plastic the brain is. He was in a Glasgow 3-level coma for a month, and when he woke up, he didn’t know what tall and short were. And now he’s become a genius again. I mean, he reads articles on quantum mechanics for fun.

What life has in store for Simon Lewis isn’t clear, but he seems to accept this. He is dating, and hopes to remarry and start a family. After all, he quips, his father is still working at 91, so he should have a few good years left.

The man he became is deeply changed. He’s lost half his vision, and he’s become unstuck in time.

“I can remember events in the past with great vividness and clarity, but I can’t put times to it. The past to me is one flat, beautiful canvas,” he says. “If I were to ask you about your vacation last year, you would mentally be aware of turning back pages…. I wouldn’t initially even have a concept of what last year means.”

Lewis’ message is this: “It isn’t about getting back to what you were before — it’s about making the most of the consciousness that remains to you over the long term, over the life term.”

Rise and Shine by Simon Lewis is available on Amazon

Simon Lewis: A Hollywood Survivor | L.A. Weekly

The man with the missing brain – Telegraph

The Hollywood Producer Who Survived Catastrophe – The Atlantic

The Atavist Magazine Blindsight

The film producer who returned from the dead – Salon.com

“Blindsight” by Chris Colin: book review – latimes

 


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