CBR12 BINGO: Gateway
Sam Kean is my favorite science writer, and his books don’t get any better than The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. I’ve previously reviewed The Disappearing Spoon and Caesar’s Last Breath for CBR, but I decided to re-read The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons because it’s a perfect “gateway” book into both Kean’s work and popular science. Plus, I’ve had a hankering lately to read some brain stuff.
The title refers to a pair of doctors who tended to King Henri II of France after he took a lance to the eye in a jousting match. The fateful incident occurred when, after losing a match to a young Scotsman named Gabriel Montgomery, Henri insisted on jousting again, proving that nothing good comes of being a sore loser (for the record, things didn’t end all that well for Montgomery either, poor sod). In spite of the efforts of Ambroise Paré and Andreas Vesalius, the two most skilled surgeons in Europe, and even though no skull fractures were found, Henri succumbed to intracranial hemorrhaging ten days later. In a shocking victory for science, Queen Catherine gave the neurosurgeons permission to do an autopsy on the dead king, a scandalous suggestion given there was no suspicion of murder. Yet the surgeons cut Henri opened and looked at his brain and were able to confirm that trauma to the brain could kill, even if the the skull remained intact. The year was 1599, and this was a tremendous scientific discovery.
Kean uses stories of real people and events to illustrate amazing scientific insights into the brain. This book is so packed with fascinating tidbits that I eschewed my usual dependence on sticky notes to mark passages I might want to reference in my review for the more permanent and much grander book darts that indicate I may want to reference these points frequently and for many years to come. If I’m pulling out my book darts, you know it’s serious.
I don’t know how to do justice to this book without simply offering a glimpse of what’s inside. Did you know that about 10% of blind people can learn to navigate their surroundings through echolocation? Kean illustrates this through the story of James Holman, a blind explorer who tapped his way around the world in the 19th century using his cane to create the sound waves that ricocheted off objects and helped him navigate his surroundings. To me, this is beyond amazing. It’s not just bats or (for you Finding Dory fans) beluga whales name Bailey who can echolocate. People’s brains have enough plasticity to learn this skill. This is just one of the many fascinating revelations in this book.
If you think the term “neuroscience” is boring, you are in for a treat. Neuroscience has made it possible for people with neurological disorders to experience senses previously cut off to them. For example, by using microprocessors, people lacking the sense of touch are able to feel by having tactile information piped directly into their brain. Blind people using such devices are able to perceive objects in front of them, even when sensory information is fed through a different organ, such as the tongue. Additionally, people who are vision impaired can often react to other people’s expressions, suggesting that even if the part of the brain that processes visual information is on the fritz, the part that processes emotional input can still be working just fine. As Kean points out “If you forget everything else in this book, remember this: nothing in the brain is strictly localized. Everything your brain does depends on many different parts working togehter–there’s no ‘language spot,’ no ‘memory spot,’ no fear spot,’ no (heaven help us) ‘God spot.’ ”
Kean makes science accessible to would-be-science-nerds like myself without ever making it feel like he’s talking down to us. He tackles topics like synesthesia, phantom limbs, amnesia, and (one of my favorite topics, God help me) prion diseases such as kuru and the absolutely horrifying but fun-to-say Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease. (Try it: KROITS-felt YAH-kobe. It rolls off the tongue.)
The content in this book is wild and I can’t do it justice in an 800-word review. Even Kean’s book doesn’t cover it all, which is why the endnotes are rich with so much additional information. He provides not only supplemental stories, but also additional books on the topics he covers. My TBR list grows every time I read Kean.
One added bonus of this book is that Kean introduces each chapter with a rebus, a simple puzzle comprising words and pictures, that reflects the theme of that chapter. So not only does he talk about the brain, he gives you a little bit of brain exercise along the way.
Chapter 6 rebus: Cerebellum