It is amazing that we still don’t know very much about the human brain. With all our technology and brilliant doctors, it remains a shadowy fairly elusive. This is partially due to the fact that the brain also houses the mind. The brain is the organ but the mind is consciousness. If the brain is the roller coaster track, your mind is the experience of the ride.

Sam Kean explores what we do know (or at least think we know right now) about the brain’s inner workings and how it affects memory, personality and daily life. He does this through various stories about patients and their doctors. These scientific anecdotes illustrate both the similarities that might overlap and how individual brain trauma can be.

Kean outlines the mental instability of the assassins of James Garfield and William McKinley. He pieces together the last days of King Henri II of France, as his brain hemorrhaged after a jousting accident. He discusses synesthesia as well as the German doctor who accidentally discovered LSD through a bad acid trip. Some blind people can “see” via electrical currents sent from a video camera to their tongue. And then there are the thousands of amputees who suffer from “phantom” limbs. And don’t miss the section on “alien” hands. Each of these cases is explored as a human story before Kean explains it with neuroscience. And each time, he does so in terms a layman can easily follow. For example:

Overall, just like a wagon wheel will carve a rut into the road after repeated journeys, repeated neurons firings will carve ruts into the brain that make signals much more likely to follow some neural tracks than others. ~Loc. 995

Kean also includes some partially unsolved mysteries.

Even more dramatic, consider a fortysomething woman in Switzerland who suffered a parietal-lobe stroke in 1978. All sense of movement disappeared for her, and life became a series of Polaroid snapshots, one every five seconds or so. While pouring tea, she saw the liquid freeze in midair like a winter waterfall. Next thing she knew, he cup overflowed. When crossing the street, she could see the cars fine, even read their license plates. But one moment they’d be far away, and the next they’d almost clip her. During conversations, people talked without moving their lips — everyone was a ventriloquist — and crowded rooms left her nauseous, because people appeared and reappeared around her like specters. She could still track movement through touch or sound, but all sense of visual motion vanished. ~ Loc. 1411

Kean considers the research of both inner brain workings / damage and how it manifests outwardly, in cases like those of epilepsy as well as the brain’s ability to transform a personality. Kean also includes fun (and often funny) footnotes every few pages. These have an even more relaxed conversation tone and reveal just how vast our minds are.

Read via NetGalley. More info about the book here.

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Price: $27.00 US/$30.00 CAN
Pages: 416
Physical Dimensions: 6″ x 9-1/4″
ISBN-13: 9780316182348
On Sale Date: 05/06/2014


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