Sunday, July 13, 2008

Search for a beautiful mind

7/13/08 Sunday
My friend, Ralph, sends me much information on traumatic brain injuries, mostly related to our soldiers serving in the mid east. This one is particularly relevant to me. Dr. Seymour Papert’s injury is on par to the one I incurred. I too had to learn how to walk and talk and when Cherie and I first got back together it had been two years after my injury. Cherie remembers how difficult it was for me to speak, often in a monotone with wrong words totally unrelated to the conversation coming out. It still happens some now but not too often. I hear myself call the kittens “puppies” a lot. I never had the resources Dr. Papert did to help him rehabilitate, with the exception of a few short weeks at the Brain Injury Institute in St. Louis. That was rudely interrupted when I was extradited to Toledo. I spent a lot of time in the public libraries researching brain injuries and creating exercises to help strengthen my mind. One of those was playing chess with myself. Because of the short term memory loss I could make a move and by the time I switched sides would forget what “The other guy” (me) was up to so had to analyze both sides for each move.

Anyway, check out this video and read Seymour's story if you could.

In search of a beautiful mind

He was long a jewel of the MIT faculty. Now, after a devastating brain injury, mathematician Seymour Papert is struggling bravely to learn again how to think like, speak like, be like the man of genius he was.

Seymour Papert constructed a mobile as part of his neurotherapy at his house in Blue Hill, Maine. The former MIT mathematics professor suffered massive brain trauma when he was struck by a motorbike. (Fred Field for The Boston Globe)

By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / July 12, 2008

Video (2 min 42 sec) --- Reinventing Seymour Papert


BLUE HILL, Maine - Seymour Papert is tinkering with a robotic, computer-controlled turtle in The Learning Barn, the rustic, light-filled laboratory where he developed and refined many of his ideas.

The long table he sits at is covered with relics of his prodigious career. A super-inexpensive laptop computer - based on his ideas - that originated at the MIT Media Laboratory, where he was a founding faculty member. A pile of DVDs on higher mathematics. A truck that brings to mind Papert's work in developing a line of robotic toys made of Legos. His turtle, a device to teach children to program computers.

Papert, who was a professor of mathematics, education, and media technology at MIT, has devoted much of his career to learning: self-learning (he taught himself Russian) and learning about learning. He was one of the early pioneers of artificial intelligence, and he invented the computer language Logo to teach children about computers.

Now he must learn something even more challenging - how to be Seymour Papert again.

Nineteen months ago he was struck by a motorbike in Hanoi and suffered a brain injury so severe he was comatose for a month and couldn't walk, talk, or read. The man widely considered to be the most important living thinker about the way children learn is struggling with an unreliable memory and an uncertain grip on words. And his wife and his caregivers are using insights from his theories about learning to help bring him back to a normal life.

"His accident was worse than horrible for somebody whose life was the mind," said Nicholas Negroponte, a cofounder and former director of MIT Media Laboratory.

It's been a year since Papert came home to Blue Hill on the Maine coast, where he lives with his wife, Suzanne Massie, a writer and Russian scholar. He'd spent months in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. Doctors say it could take years to know the full extent of the brain damage.

He spends every weekday in The Learning Barn. Here, with friends and aides, he plays dominoes to practice working with numbers. He adjusts gears on a Lego truck, an echo of a lifelong passion for gears so exuberant he wrote an essay about them - "The Gears of My Childhood" - in his seminal 1980 book, "Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas." He works, tentatively, on math problems and is starting to play chess.

"He is unbelievably brave and courageous," Massie said. "I've come to the conclusion that the good Lord still wants him to do some work."

The accident

When the accident happened on Dec. 5, 2006, Papert was 78 years old and as vigorous as ever.

The South Africa native was midway through an ambitious new book about the future of education. He'd just returned from Greece, where he lectured at an international educational conference. He had a meeting coming up with the king of Thailand to talk about new learning initiatives in Bangkok. Though he'd retired from MIT in 1996, he worked under contract as a consultant with doctoral students, gave lectures, and attended faculty meetings.

He had been invited to Vietnam to deliver the keynote speech at a conference of mathematicians and educators hosted by Hanoi Technology University. The speech he gave was vintage Papert. With his eloquent command of language and thoughtful discourse, he challenged the audience to help students embrace "the beautiful jewel of the human spirit called pure mathematics" and to "think beyond the possible, beyond what you think can be done."

The next day he went back to the conference and was struck by a speeding motorbike as he crossed a chaotically busy street. He was rushed to a Hanoi hospital, where he had two emergency brain operations. A few days later he was airlifted, in a coma, to Massachusetts General Hospital in a Swiss air ambulance.

He spent nearly a month in intensive care and seven months in Maine hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, at one point developing septicemia, an infection that nearly killed him. Last July, he returned home to the light-filled 1839 farmhouse adjoining The Learning Barn in this picturesque coastal community.

He was a very changed man. He'd lost nearly 40 pounds and used a wheelchair and a walker. His speech was totally garbled. He was relearning how to feed himself. He had bouts of extreme anxiety and was terrified of stairs.

With some trepidation, Massie began helping her husband become himself again, the man she describes as charming, funny, a deep thinker, a "constant learner," a scientist so fully engaged he often neglected to tie his shoes.

Doctors prescribed 24-hour home care, Massie said, while offering no assurances he'd recover completely. "Memory and other high-level thought functions take a long time [to return]. It can take years," said Dr. Douglas Katz, medical director of Braintree Rehabilitation Hospital's brain injury program, who was asked to consult on Papert's case.

"We wait," said Massie. "We wait."

But not passively. "I will say there certainly were times [with Papert] when I got pretty depressed," she says. But she clung to hopeful advice offered by a physician in Hanoi. "He said, 'It's a good thing he is so brilliant; it means his neurons are well developed,' " Massie said. " 'Put him to work at something hard as soon as possible.' "

She did. Inspired by Papert's own ideas on experiential, hands-on learning, she encouraged friends and colleagues to relate to him as the mathematician and thinker they'd always known. Colleagues brought learning toys and puzzles to the hospital. "Past colleagues would come with gears," said Dr. Peter Keebler, chief of rehabilitation at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where Papert spent several weeks. "In a sense they were applying his own paradigms for learning."

Exercising his mind

Four mornings a week, Papert works with Peter Rottman, a friend and executive director of The Learning Barn, who engages him in conversation and reminds him of the theories he constructed and the work he used to do.

"I ask open-ended questions," said Rottman. "I never know where we'll end up."

Much of the time he talks to Rottman in a kind of gibberish, using nonsense words and sentences, albeit with the syntax and the cadence of proper sentence construction.

Rottman observes that Papert still speaks in his old professorial manner, drawing circles with his finger on the table, interjecting terminology - "data," "robot," "key ideas" - from his academic days at MIT. Even when he speaks nonsensically, it's with a South Africa accent and a tendency to pontificate.

Their starting point, one recent morning, was Papert's work with children at MIT Media Lab.

"Are children still using the robots?" Rottman asked.

Papert paused and appeared to reflect. "For this particular group of kids, something of kinetic directed very started getting this moving," he responded authoritatively, but then lapsed: "So a lot of children gradually are taken vocay and the convense."

"When I talk to you," Rottman said, "do you understand everything I say?"

Papert nodded. "Somewhat," he said, and smiled.

Rottman said it's disconcerting, sometimes, to watch Papert speak and know he's conveying only a small percentage of what he's thinking. "When he's talking to you, obviously in his mind it's correct, but coming out of his mouth it's not. Every now and then he'll string together three or four sentences and they'll just be perfect," Rottman said. "But if he can put together three or four, why not five or six? That's the fascinating part. We don't know."

Searching for Seymour

Papert has a devoted group of caregivers working around the clock, including nurses, a physical trainer, and a speech therapist. The services cost $15,000 a month, Massie said, and since Papert has used up his Medicare and Blue Cross benefits, she was forced to launch a Seymour Papert Recovery Fund, which has generated donations from colleagues and friends all over the world, as well as the Lego company. She said MIT has refused to help pay for his home care, although it did cover his emergency evacuation from Hanoi.

In a statement, MIT said: "Seymour Papert, a retired professor emeritus at MIT since 1996, has been a member of the MIT community for over 40 years and is loved and respected by everyone who has had the privilege of working with him. Since his terrible accident in Hanoi, MIT has provided him with assistance and support."

At the end of March, Massie brought Papert to MIT for the first time since the accident to visit his old colleagues at the Media Lab. "I hope he understood what was being said," Nicholas Negroponte said via e-mail, adding: "It did not feel like the same Seymour."

Massie is convinced it is the same Seymour.

Rottman, for his part, is heartened by the continual improvements in Papert's speech. "At the very beginning, I think he was confused. He wasn't very aware of his surroundings. Now he seems much more aware."

Then he turned to Papert to get his perspective. "Think that will change, Seymour?" he asked.

"I don't know," Papert replied with a shrug. "We'll see."

1 comment:

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