De­light­ful book about the brain might make you think twice

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Les­ley Hughes

IN this amaz­ingly charm­ing book, sci­ence writer Sam Kean bravely sets out to an­swer the ques­tion: How does a mind emerge from the hu­man brain? His jour­ney to the an­swer takes us all the way back to 1559, and to the du­elling doc­tors of his in­trigu­ing ti­tle. That was the year that an un­lucky king of France, Henri the Sec­ond, was lanced through the skull with an iron javelin dur­ing a joust, giv­ing us one of the most sig­nif­i­cant cases in neu­ro­science his­tory. Two of the very au­gust med­i­cal men of the day, Am­broise Paré and An­dreas Ve­sal­ius, treated and tended to Henri both as he clung to life and af­ter he sur­ren­dered to his wounds. Their dif­fer­ing ob­ser­va­tions would serve as a fas­ci­nat­ing model of in­for­ma­tion about the work­ings of the hu­man brain for the next four cen­turies. Poor Henri’s story also il­lus­trates an im­por­tant sub-theme of Kean’s book — ev­ery­thing we know about the brain, its dis­ease, dys­func­tion and its well­ness, is owed to or­di­nary people who have suf­fered bizarre ac­ci­dents, ill­ness and dis­as­ters. These in­clude strokes, seizures, sabre wounds, ex­plo­sions and, yes, botched surg­eries. With this in mind, Kean cheer­fully (though re­spect­fully) goes about “res­ur­rect­ing the lives of kings, can­ni­bals, dwarfs... whose strug­gles made mod­ern neu­ro­surgery pos­si­ble.” Kean’s style brings to mind the ir­rev­er­ence of travel writer Bill Bryson, as well as Amer­i­can fic­tion writer and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Carl Hi­aasen. Kean’s work is widely fea­tured in Slate, Psy­chol­ogy To­day and the New Sci­en­tist, and is heard of­ten on Amer­i­can pub­lic ra­dio. The writer dwells elo­quently on trau­main­duced changes in hu­man be­hav­iour, no­tably the story of New Eng­lan­der Phineas Gage, which he con­sid­ers the sin­gle most fa­mous tale in neu­ro­science. Gage was a pop­u­lar, re­spected rail­way fore­man who was shot cleanly through the eye by a steel rod mea­sur­ing al­most a me­tre long. (Squea­mish read­ers may want to skip the vivid de­scrip­tion of this event.) Gage’s sur­vival was mirac­u­lous, but the in­ci­dent left him wildly ec­cen­tric, self­ish and foul­mouthed. He was, his friends said, “no longer Gage.” Aha! Sad, but an­other leap for­ward in brain sci­ence for which, Kean says, we ought to be grate­ful. While ac­knowl­edg­ing tragedy, Kean cer­tainly de­lights in the de­scrip­tion of all things gory and freaky. The many tales of in­jury and woe are soft­ened, how­ever, by his ex­cite­ment at the still-un­told and mirac­u­lous ca­pac­i­ties of the brain. Dueling Neu­ro­sur­geons will con­firm Kean’s al­ready-solid rep­u­ta­tion as a writer who can make any­thing un­der­stand­able and in­ter­est­ing. Pre­vi­ous works such as The Dis­ap­pear­ing Spoon (a love story about the pe­ri­odic ta­ble) and The Violinist’s Thumb (a play­ful romp through the won­ders of the ge­netic code) have es­tab­lished his im­pec­ca­ble re­search and his ironic tone. Al­though hugely en­ter­tain­ing (per­haps es­pe­cially so in this era of vam­pire and zom­bie fas­ci­na­tion), Kean’s book con­tains amaz­ingly clear de­tails about our brains. He pro­ceeds from gross anatomy through to cells, senses and cir­cuitry, dis­cred­ited be­liefs and delu­sions about con­scious­ness, and ex­plores mem­ory and lan­guage. Read­ers may re­coil, may read cer­tain sec­tions of Dueling Neu­ro­sur­geons twice in dis­be­lief, and may want to use Kean’s ma­te­rial to sound smart at din­ner par­ties, but by book’s end, they will have a bet­ter idea of how all of us use our brains to ar­rive at our “sense of self.” Les­ley Hughes is a Win­nipeg-based

writer and broad­caster.

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