Bruce Willis, aphasia, language, and neurology - GulfToday

Bruce Willis, aphasia, language, and neurology

Bruce Willis

Bruce Willis

The announcement by the family of Hollywood star Bruce Willis that he would not act any more because of a debilitating brain condition called aphasia, which affects speech and memory has triggered a lot of sympathy and emotional outburst from the Hollywood fraternity. It is possible that because of Willis’s star status, aphasia could become an issue of concern. In terms of brain physiology, the left part of the brain is considered the creative side while the right part deals with motor actions. Aphasia is caused by stroke. Willis is 67. It now appears that the condition has been developing for quite sometime now, and his co-workers on filmsets had noticed it.

According to a report in The Los Angeles Times, Mike Burns, a director of Willis’s latest movie, “Out of Death” had asked the screenplay writer to reduce the dialogues of the character played by Willis.

Willis is a formidable star-cum-actor, who made his mark in popular television series, “Moonlighting” and action movies like the “Die Hard” series, but he also played sensitive acting roles as in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” and Manoj Night Shyamalan’s “Sixth Sense”.

What it took Clint Eastwood years to achieve as an action hero as well as an actor, Willis managed to do it when he was in the middle of his career. He shared this quality with his ‘‘Pulp Fiction” co-star John Travolta, who became a star with his iconic ‘‘Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease” and made a mark as an actor in movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “Get Shorty”. It is an admirable feat in Hollywood, an entertainment industry driven by the ruthless principle of success.

But Willis’s ailment is not to be treated as an obituary for the career of the star-actor. It should instead be drawing attention to the condition of aphasia. Most Americans are familiar with Alzheimer’s, the problem of failing memory among the older people. Aphasia, though a familiar condition, should draw attention to the condition of brain, the least understood part of the human physiology even according to medical researchers.

That is why, there was the Decade of the Brain from 1990 to 1999 in the United States to understand the system that brings human beings alive and makes them human. Aphasia has also been a familiar term for those studying linguistics, especially psycholinguistics, where the acquisition of language is studied closely. Researchers found that when a particular part of the brain was damaged, some of the words and other linguistic features disappeared. And it gave rise to the speculation that language could be mapped on to specific parts of the brain.

It is no more as simple as that and neurologists believe that the wiring system of the brain is much more complicated, and language cannot be assigned to any specific region of the brain. What remains undeniable however is that language is indeed a neural activity, though its expression through speech needs other organs like the voice box and the laryngeal tract as well as the facial muscles. But language formulation and articulation is the activity of the brain.

Willis’s tragic ailment could evoke interest in the role that the neural system plays in the making of language. Linguistic scholars like Noam Chomsky have postulated that language and the grammatic structures of a language are an innate part of the mind/brain, and that human beings do not learn language and grammar as much as they are born with it. It is considered a metaphysical assumption by many of the scientists studying the brain.

But Willis’s ailment should bring back many of the questions related to language, speech, and the brain back into general focus. An actor is nothing without language, memory, and voice. In aphasia, language and memory are impaired.

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