The Mystery of Hodor’s Brain

hodor-game-of-thrones

This guest post about Hodor is by the French blogger Didymus. Please give Didymus a warm welcome and check out his blog at Les Histoires de Didymus.


 

Do you know Hodor? Of course, you know him. Everybody knows Hodor. You even know all of his replies: he always repeats the same mysterious word, “Hodor.”

Did you know that Hodor is not even his first name? According to Old Nan, his first name is Walder. Where does the word Hodor come from? We don’t know. For now. George RR Martin may give us the answer in his future books.

What we do know is that Hodor’s case is not unique. In the past, another man lived through the same ordeal. His name was Louis-Victor Leborgne, also known as Tan, and he lived in France during the nineteenth century.

Hodor-says-hodor

Hodor’s problems are plainly visible. Beyond his intellectual deficiency, he has difficulty speaking. He can express feelings — anger, sadness, fear — but with only one word. If Hodor lived in our world, he might have a disease: Broca’s aphasia. The French doctor Paul Broca discovered the disease in 1861 while he was trying to cure Louis Victor Leborgne.

Louis-Victor “Tan” Leborgne was born in 1809. We don’t know much about his early life except that he suffered from epilepsy. During his childhood, his epilepsy wasn’t grave, but it became worse with age. One day, Louis-Victor suddenly couldn’t speak like us anymore. In fact, Louis-Victor only spoke with one syllable — “Tan” — exactly like our friend Hodor. Tan was admitted to the Bicêtre Hospital in Paris, in 1840, and this is where our story begins.

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Bicêtre Hospital, the place of Leborgne’s illness. Image: National Library of France.

The Bicêtre Hospital is an old hospital. Built in 1656, it was first a hospice, then a state prison, and finally, by 1840, an asylum. In the nineteenth century, asylums were places where you were hidden from society, not cured. They provided you with a bed, a meal, and sometimes pills. That’s all. During the first 22 years of his confinement, Tan did nothing but stay in his bed. One day, unfortunately, another disease hit him: gangrene. Tan could no longer stay in the asylum, and he was transferred to the service of another doctor, Paul Broca.

Born in 1824, Paul Broca was a gifted child. By the age of 17, he passed not one but three  baccalaureates: in literature, physics, and mathematics. (A baccalaureate is a French diploma that corresponds to the A-levels or, vaguely, to a high-school diploma.) After that, Broca began to study medicine and got his PhD at the age of 20. What a genius. Broca quickly became a professor, and finally, he traded the lecture halls for the hospital. His first important patient was our friend Tan, and this was the medical case that gave Broca glory.

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Dr. Paul Broca

When “Tan” arrived into the expert hands of Dr. Broca, his fate was sealed. The gangrene paralyzed Tan’s entire right side, and he was unable to move. But this didn’t faze Broca, who decided to study Tan’s case. As a specialist in language, Broca ran many tests on Tan. Testing Tan wasn’t a trivial matter: Tan wrote using his paralyzed right hand, so communication was difficult. Nonetheless, Broca discovered interesting things about Tan. Tan could count, tell time on a watch, and knew exactly how long he had been at Bicêtre. However, as Broca says in his diary:

“He could no longer produce but a single syllable, which he usually repeated twice in succession; regardless of the question asked him, he always responded: tan, tan, combined with varied expressive gestures. This is why, throughout the hospital, he is known only by the name Tan.”

After six days of varied experiences, Tan died on April 17. He was 51 years old. Actually — and it’s pretty sad to say it — Tan was more useful dead than alive because Broca had learned everything he could learn from him. Once Tan died, however, Broca could autopsy him and see exactly what was wrong with his brain.

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Broca’s area. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The biopsy revealed a large lesion in the frontal area, in the posterior inferior frontal gyrus (depressions). This section, which was afterward known as Broca’s area, is one of the two areas responsible for the language. If this area suffers from a major lesion, the patient may be unable to speak again. But, most of the time, this disease is not as serious as Tan’s. For example, a month after Tan’s death, another patient named Lazare Lelong came to the Bicêtre Hospital for a similar problem. Lelong, however, was able to say some words like “Yes”/”No”. (In contrast, the only syllable Tan could say was not even a real word in his native tongue.) Paul Broca spent the rest of his life studying this disease, and finally gave it his name: “Broca’s aphasia.”

Tan was unique in the history of psychology. Now, with Hodor, Tan may feel less alone.

The depressions in Broca’s area are not usual. If someone opens Hodor’s head, he may find a similar lesion on his Broca’s area.

What caused Tan’s aphasia? Some believed his epileptic crisis was the culprit — an explanation at least one neurologist finds credible.

But, not for Hodor: he is not epileptic. And, Hodor  is also a bit intellectually disabled. So what happened to Hodor? Unless George RR Martin tells us, we may never know. According to one doctor, a prenatal stroke that damaged his Broca’s area may have caused Hodor’s disability. At least, we can be sure of one thing: Hodor isn’t a Pokemon.

 

Didymus blogs about unusual and strange tales, such as the macabre history of pizza through the centuries, Auvergne, and fantasy.

7 Comments

  • Reply August 13, 2014

    Connie

    Thanks for the very interesting article! It’s giving me a lot to think about as I knew nothing of this patient in France and the disorder.

    One of the most common theories that my friends have espoused is that like Timmy in South Park, Hodor was injured at birth, noting Hodor has the very prominent scar on his head that could have damaged the area affecting speech. Unlike Timmy, folks aren’t advanced enough in Westeros to be able to test and push him to say other words – Timmy eventually uses five other words, “gobbles”, “boo”, and “livin a lie”.

  • Reply August 15, 2014

    rosswittenham

    I had thought Hodor’s condition was something to do with the fact that he has ‘giant blood’? Inheriting certain genetic traits from two different species could lead to disabilities such as a mental handicap. Could a lesion be formed by genes that try to produce a brain larger than the cranium has room for?

  • […] The Mystery of Hodor’s Brain is a post from: The History Behind Game of Thrones […]

  • Reply February 17, 2015

    Bakaine Mukuru

    Interesting how even a minor character like Hodor is given so much depth. Love George RR Martin.

  • Reply February 19, 2016

    Watcher on the Couch

    Belatedly thank you to Didymus for posting this – food for thought. I see that Didymus’ blog is on hiatus at the moment but I wanted to say (and I hope it’s alright with Didymus) that I downloaded his article about the ‘loup-garou’ of the Franche-Compte (sorry – I can type an acute accent in Word but not online) to use as a discussion point at a French conversation group for retired people that I attend. I wanted to bring something along that differed from the usual magazine or newspaper article, so thank you Didymus and I hope it’s okay I did that – it was for educational purposes and it’s not like I’ve made any money out of it.

    * I know it means weir-wolf in case anybody’s wondering.

    • Reply February 27, 2016

      Jamie Adair

      Thanks for mentioning this Watcher. I will have to read that Loup-garou article. My French is very rusty, but Google Translate is my friend. 🙂

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