The fastest and most powerful computers in the whole world cost millions of dollars to build and millions more to maintain, but a lump of tissue enclosed in bone crowning every human being can run a thousand times faster than the best machines in use today. And all it needs to survive is a good burger every now and then.
I’ve always been fascinated by this curious blob that we call the brain. It has billions of cells, and even more connections between them. Despite the fact that the brain is more powerful than any other computing device on the planet, it always stays at a balmy 98 degrees Fahrenheit. Compared to the 100s of degrees some computers can get up to if left uncooled, that is simply amazing. The brain is a biological miracle, and I was glad to find a book written by someone who shares the same enthusiasm for it as I do.
Brain science is still in its early stages, but where we are now is miles ahead of where we were even as recently as forty years ago. The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain As Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery, by Sam Kean, is a book about how humans’ understanding of the brain has evolved over the centuries. It was really shocking, for example, to see that up until fairly recently, the answer to a brain problem would be to open the skull, guess what looked slightly wrong, and rip it out. I was absolutely horrified by how cruelly people with brain disorders were treated in the past. They were used as freak show attractions, and had their rights ignored as doctors operated on them with no restrictions. However, some of these despicable acts led to important discoveries in the field of neuroscience.
Sam Kean draws readers in with historical examples of the concepts addressed in the book, which is what makes it so interesting. This could have easily been a piece of literature resembling a textbook, but Kean makes it interesting enough that I didn’t want to stop reading it. It is incredible how specialized certain sections of the brain are. A section of only one hundred neurons could be attributed to seeing only horizontal lines, but when the entire brain works together, we synthesize stimuli from the world around us to create our understanding of life.
At the beginning of every chapter, there’s a rebus that spells out a word which is the main topic for that chapter. The puzzle itself piques your interest for the reading ahead. Kean sets up the book by dissecting the brain into its various parts and explaining how the brain works by narrating case histories of patients who had problems with that specific region of the brain. This gives a really good picture of exactly what that part of the brain is meant for. Kean is able to write about a boring subject (for some, not me) in a manner that’s humorous, entertaining and simply enjoyable.
Kean also employs this engaging writing style in his other two books, The Disappearing Spoon (the story and history of the period table of elements) and The Violinist’s Thumb (the story of our evolving understanding of genetics). These two books established Sam Kean in my mind as a brilliant non-fiction writer, so much so that we pre-ordered The Dueling Neurosurgeons as soon as it became available.
Even if you really find the brain to be the most boring subject you could read about, this book should still appeal to you because of the many stories about ordinary people whose struggles have contributed so much to our understanding of the brain.