Author: Sam Kean
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Copyright year: 2014
Number of pages: 416 (hardcover)
“Perhaps even more important than the science, these stories enrich our understanding of the human condition.”
A compelling storyteller, Sam Kean, in “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery,” gives us the backstory to most of the major players, both neuroscientists and their unwitting patients, who appear in our introduction to psychology textbooks. With each chapter, Kean focuses on a different brain area and the historical figures most associated with that brain area. Kean brings a compassionate lens to these figures, letting the reader see them as fully embodied people, not just as the condition with which they are associated.
Among the familiar characters are Paul Broca and a couple of his patients, Tan and Lelo. Tan, a nickname, as all he could say by the age of 31 was “tan tan,” had a severe lesion in the frontal lobe of his brain. Lelo, a nickname — what he called himself (and one of only five words he could utter following a stroke) — had a small lesion in that same location. With two cases reported, Broca became Europe’s expert on aphasia. Within four years, Broca had conducted autopsies on 25 people with the condition, 24 of whom had damage in that same location. A few years later Broca moved on to other things, such as determining that an ancient Peruvian skull showed signs of neurosurgery and healing, and, more surprisingly, smuggling gold into Versailles when he was in exile in an effort to assist the government. What did Broca die of? A brain hemorrhage.
The story of Henry Molaison (H.M.) begins with a short history of his experience with seizures followed by his being introduced to William Scoville, a surgeon known for being daring (or reckless, depending on one’s point of view). By the 1950s, we still didn’t know much about what the hippocampi did. Because of the connection to other structures in the limbic system, it was assumed that the hippocampi played a role in emotions. Scoville had removed the hippocampi in a few people with psychosis, but he evidently did not do much, if any, follow up with them. Scoville convinced H.M. to try the surgery. Desperate to reduce his seizures, H.M. agreed. Following surgery, when it was clear that H.M.’s memory was dramatically changed, Scoville contacted Wilder Penfield, another neurosurgeon who had experience with the hippocampus. Penfield sent a grad student, Brenda Milner, to visit with H.M., thereby starting a research partnership that would last for decades. H.M. and Milner have told us much about memory and consciousness.
Do you want the full story on Phineas Gage? Or how split-brain surgery came to be? Or who gave us the first insights into synesthesia? Or phantom sensations? Or Woodrow Wilson’s experience with hemispatial neglect? Kean takes us there.
Sam Kean also introduces us to some people or conditions with which you may not be familiar.
A person known to science as S.M. has the rare Urbach-Wiethe disease — a disease that destroys the amygdala. The end result is that S.M. has no fear. As Kean writes, “Studies involving S.M. are actually a hoot to read, since they basically consist of scientists dreaming up ever-more-elaborate ways to scare her.” Think snakes, haunted houses and horror movies. All led to interest but not fear. Other emotions, such as sadness and disgust, are fully present for her; it is only fear that is missing. In real-life situations when her life was in danger, she reacted without fear. Her descriptions of those events are also devoid of any expression of fear.
When Sam Kean came through my hometown on his book tour for “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons,” I asked him what, in doing research for this book, made him stop short to ask himself “Wait, what?” For him it was the split-brain research. To see for the first time each hemisphere doing its own thing is jarring.
But Kean did uncover something that brought me up short with my own “Wait, what?” experience.
Living in Vancouver, British Columbia, are Tatiana and Krista, conjoined twins born in 2006 who share a thalamus. This means shared sensation and shared consciousness. Having shared sensation with another person makes for some awkward situations. Whatever one experiences, so does the other. When Krista eats ketchup, Tatiana tastes it, which is problematic because Tatiana does not like ketchup. Like all siblings, Krista and Tatiana do not always get along. If Tatiana slaps Krista in the face, Tatiana will grab her own face in pain. How do we know they share a consciousness as well as sensation? “They often speak simultaneously, like two stereo speakers.”
This is one of those books that will have you calling out to anyone within shouting distance, “Hey, listen to this!” Don’t skip the endnotes; there is a wealth of fascinating information in there.
Buy the book, here.