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The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery

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From the author of the bestseller The Disappearing Spoon, tales of the brain and the history of neuroscience. Early studies of the functions of the human brain used a simple method: wait for misfortune to strike-strokes, seizures, infectious diseases, lobotomies, horrendous accidents-and see how the victim coped. In many cases survival was miraculous, and observers could From the author of the bestseller The Disappearing Spoon, tales of the brain and the history of neuroscience. Early studies of the functions of the human brain used a simple method: wait for misfortune to strike-strokes, seizures, infectious diseases, lobotomies, horrendous accidents-and see how the victim coped. In many cases survival was miraculous, and observers could only marvel at the transformations that took place afterward, altering victims' personalities. An injury to one section can leave a person unable to recognize loved ones; some brain trauma can even make you a pathological gambler, pedophile, or liar. But a few scientists realized that these injuries were an opportunity for studying brain function at its extremes. With lucid explanations and incisive wit, Sam Kean explains the brain's secret passageways while recounting forgotten stories of common people whose struggles, resiliency, and deep humanity made modern neuroscience possible.


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From the author of the bestseller The Disappearing Spoon, tales of the brain and the history of neuroscience. Early studies of the functions of the human brain used a simple method: wait for misfortune to strike-strokes, seizures, infectious diseases, lobotomies, horrendous accidents-and see how the victim coped. In many cases survival was miraculous, and observers could From the author of the bestseller The Disappearing Spoon, tales of the brain and the history of neuroscience. Early studies of the functions of the human brain used a simple method: wait for misfortune to strike-strokes, seizures, infectious diseases, lobotomies, horrendous accidents-and see how the victim coped. In many cases survival was miraculous, and observers could only marvel at the transformations that took place afterward, altering victims' personalities. An injury to one section can leave a person unable to recognize loved ones; some brain trauma can even make you a pathological gambler, pedophile, or liar. But a few scientists realized that these injuries were an opportunity for studying brain function at its extremes. With lucid explanations and incisive wit, Sam Kean explains the brain's secret passageways while recounting forgotten stories of common people whose struggles, resiliency, and deep humanity made modern neuroscience possible.

30 review for The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery

  1. 5 out of 5

    Petra X is feeling so stressed she has eczema

    I really like books on neurology. I like to know how our our behaviour changes when something goes wrong. I am a lot less interested in the normal working of the brain. I just can't get excited about glia, synapses, astrocytes and all the other bits that are of interest to neurologists. It is the telling of anecdotes about people that illustrate disorders, malfunctioning and occasionally extraordinary abilities and talents that I relate to. I recently read Oliver Sacks Hallucinations and VS Ramc I really like books on neurology. I like to know how our our behaviour changes when something goes wrong. I am a lot less interested in the normal working of the brain. I just can't get excited about glia, synapses, astrocytes and all the other bits that are of interest to neurologists. It is the telling of anecdotes about people that illustrate disorders, malfunctioning and occasionally extraordinary abilities and talents that I relate to. I recently read Oliver Sacks Hallucinations and VS Ramchandran's Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind and I was hoping for something more in that vein. But there were too few anecdotes and too much glia in the book for me. I didn't like the writing. I am not keen on slang being used to entertain, it just strikes me as loose writing. The chapters I read had mostly centuries-old anecdotes - Philippe of France - and were told in a very loose way. It didn't engage me. Then on to the dreaded glia and the author's absolute delight in the structure of the brain that I do not share. I would say I'd given this book up as it never engaged me. But it has an average of over 4, so perhaps I'll just put it to one side for now and come back to it.... sometime soon. I never know what to do with books I don't like that everyone else does. Whether to persist with them or just give them up? I always feel that I am missing something crucial. What about you?

  2. 4 out of 5

    Sean Gibson

    Brains are funny, and fascinating, things. Sam Kean is a funny, and fascinating, writer. Sam Kean writing about brains leads, perhaps unsurprisingly, to a fascinating (and sometimes funny) book. Part of the reason brains are so fascinating is that they operate with such prodigious levels of speed and processing power that even the most powerful supercomputers can’t replicate everything that they do (they also look kind of like something Scots would boil in a sheep’s stomach with neeps and tatties Brains are funny, and fascinating, things. Sam Kean is a funny, and fascinating, writer. Sam Kean writing about brains leads, perhaps unsurprisingly, to a fascinating (and sometimes funny) book. Part of the reason brains are so fascinating is that they operate with such prodigious levels of speed and processing power that even the most powerful supercomputers can’t replicate everything that they do (they also look kind of like something Scots would boil in a sheep’s stomach with neeps and tatties, so they’ve got that going for them). And, yet, we still don’t fully understand how the brain works, and much of what we do know is the result not of studying fully functioning, normal brains, but, rather, examining those unfortunate individuals whose brains have been damaged as a result of traumatic injury or illness, resulting in bizarre behavior ranging from extreme personality changes to an inability to identify vegetables—and only vegetables (this latter brain deficiency seems particularly useful to me, actually, as it would make it much easier to continue my lifelong quest to consume as few vegetables as possible). Kean’s narrative highlights some of the most famous damaged brains in history, individuals whose conditions facilitated leaps and bounds forward in neuroscience and in helping us not only understand how our brains work, but how to treat those whose brains maybe don’t work quite right. A word of warning: it can be terrifying to read about people whose faculties have been so irrevocably altered by brain trauma that they can no longer recognize loved ones or become convinced that every single person on the planet has been replaced by clones (due to the fact that they can no longer recognize the same person if they look in any way different from the last time they saw them—a change out outfit, a haircut, even an eyebrow plucking can throw them off), and there’s a distinct chance that you will want to walk around wearing a brain-protecting helmet at all times afterward (or maybe that’s just me). I now live in fear of getting a railroad spike through my brain and going all Phineas Gage on everyone. That said, this book will delight pop science aficionados (or fans of Kean’s other works) and leave you even more awed that the same organ responsible for my fixation with Saved by the Bell (which, in and of itself, may be a form of brain damage) can perform such an immense array of complicated tasks and, in certain circumstances, rewire itself to keep functioning even after sustaining trauma. We’ll call this a strong 4.5 stars. (Personally, I look forward to seeing…or, well, I guess not seeing…what happens when scientists get their hands on my brain. It will either advance neuroscience by leaps and bounds or set us back a thousand years. My money is on the latter.)

  3. 5 out of 5

    David Rubenstein

    This is the fourth book I've read by Sam Kean, and they have all been excellent. This fascinating book describes the history of our understanding of the brain in the last couple hundred years. It is not a comprehensive treatment, but instead it is an in-depth look at a number of episodes that gave quantum jumps into our understanding. Often, these episodes are centered on some type of brain injury or illness. One of the central questions about the brain is whether or not thought processes are dec This is the fourth book I've read by Sam Kean, and they have all been excellent. This fascinating book describes the history of our understanding of the brain in the last couple hundred years. It is not a comprehensive treatment, but instead it is an in-depth look at a number of episodes that gave quantum jumps into our understanding. Often, these episodes are centered on some type of brain injury or illness. One of the central questions about the brain is whether or not thought processes are decentralized or localized. That is to say, the question is whether each type of thought process is localized in a specific area of the brain, or spread throughout the brain. Nowadays, we know that specific areas of the brain are responsible for specific thought processes, but it took a long time for sufficient evidence to pin this down with proof. The best proof was to have a specific area of the brain damaged by illness or injury, and to observe what types of thought processes were affected. One of the most famous of these was the case of the rail supervisor Phineas Gage, who had a metal bar run through his skull and brain. Now, I have read about this case numerous times, in many different books. But Sam Kean's description is more detailed than any other that I have read. Interestingly, Kean takes the reader through the history of two presidential assassinations; McKinley and Garfield. In both cases, the assassins were normal men with no violence in their past. But over a short period of time, the assassins became mad, and autopsies gave physical evidence (macroscopic in one case, microscopic in the other) that the assassins had damage to their brains. The book is essentially a collection of anecdotal episodes. This made it very engaging, without going too deeply into jargon and technical detail. I was captivated by the description of the rare Capgras syndrome. A victim of this syndrome can see and recognize family members. But, as a result of two separate lesions in two different areas of the brain, the victim believes that despite recognizing the appearance of people he sees, he believes irrationally that they are not his family members, but are imposters! I didn't read this book; I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Henry Leyva. His narration is very good, and helped me to enjoy the book.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Kean’s third popular science book tells fascinating stories about how the brain works. “Tiny flaws in the brain [have] strange but telling consequences all the time,” he writes. King Henri II incurred brain injuries in jousting accidents and suffered headaches and seizures. The rival neurosurgeons of the title examined him but found no skull fractures. Yet Henri died of an intracranial hemorrhage – proof the brain could be damaged even if the skull stayed intact. The book is crammed full of such Kean’s third popular science book tells fascinating stories about how the brain works. “Tiny flaws in the brain [have] strange but telling consequences all the time,” he writes. King Henri II incurred brain injuries in jousting accidents and suffered headaches and seizures. The rival neurosurgeons of the title examined him but found no skull fractures. Yet Henri died of an intracranial hemorrhage – proof the brain could be damaged even if the skull stayed intact. The book is crammed full of such intriguing anecdotes. Kean profiles presidential assassins with brain decay, a blind Royal Navy lieutenant who travelled the world using his cane for echolocation, and an American Civil War veteran whose story sparked research on phantom limbs. Seemingly minute brain changes can alter personality or cause epilepsy, amnesia, dwarfism, degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or kuru (once common among Papuan cannibals), and all manner of delusional behavior. Kean systematically chronicles how neuroscience came to understand which parts of the brain control which functions. His clear, humorous prose is perfectly pitched, with simple diagrams, photographs and rebuses enlivening each chapter. As a light-hearted collection of scientific yarns, this is very much in the vein of Bill Bryson or Oliver Sacks. However, there is a serious message here, too: the brain’s ability to repair itself is reassuring, but memory and identity prove problematic: “Our memories actually sculpt, rework and...distort” events, Kean cautions. If the brain is so changeable, does the self remain the same? Enthralling, thought-provoking reading. Related reads: One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

  5. 5 out of 5

    Cheryl

    This book is a delightful tour around the brain with a knowledgeable and gently humorous guide who never loses focus but is quite prepared to be diverted if there is a chance to enrich the story. The dueling neurosurgeons of the title represent both Paré and Vesalius (the founder of modern anatomy) who were called upon in 1559 to treat King Henri of France who, while jousting, had suffered a penetrating wound to his eye and brain. Thankfully we have now in pathology more sophisticated tests for e This book is a delightful tour around the brain with a knowledgeable and gently humorous guide who never loses focus but is quite prepared to be diverted if there is a chance to enrich the story. The dueling neurosurgeons of the title represent both Paré and Vesalius (the founder of modern anatomy) who were called upon in 1559 to treat King Henri of France who, while jousting, had suffered a penetrating wound to his eye and brain. Thankfully we have now in pathology more sophisticated tests for examining tissue than what was used by the royal surgeon Paré: “He developed tests to distinguish between fat… and oozing bits of fatty brain tissue (fat floats on water, brain sinks; fat liquefies in a frying pan, brain shrivels.)” And we have more sophisticated treatments now too, than the potion of rhubarb and charred Egyptian mummy force-fed to poor Henri. The famous surgeons didn’t manage to save the King, and together they performed his autopsy; the briefly described procedure is quite similar to modern day technique. They did deviate from the usual procedure in that this time they didn’t lop the head off to remove the brain. We don’t do that either nowadays in the autopsy suite. The book is populated with famous characters from the annals of medical history. They’re all here: Vesalius, Cajal, Golgi, Broca, HM, Penfield, etc., but they are not dusty relics in a history museum. They come alive because Kean describes not just their feats but how their actions propelled forward various concepts and understandings of anatomy and medicine, based on case histories that are vividly and engagingly described. While his tone is frequently light and humorous, he nonetheless stays within bounds and always respects the humanity of the patients. The evolution of medical thinking is illustrated with these fascinating stories. He has achieved the ideal pop science narrative that seamlessly marries case histories to fundamental neurological concepts. (Received as ARC via NetGalley from Little, Brown & Co.)

  6. 4 out of 5

    Elyse

    This book is structured by alternating anecdotes and then science, anecdotes then science, etc. It helped break up the technical info so it wasn't so overwhelming for a reader like me. And I love a good science story. The brain is a fascinating thing. How did Phineas Gage survive a metal rod through his brain? It bypassed vital regions and flew out the other side. The author doesn't want us to think the brain is totally localized for certain functions - we use our entire brain in subtle ways for This book is structured by alternating anecdotes and then science, anecdotes then science, etc. It helped break up the technical info so it wasn't so overwhelming for a reader like me. And I love a good science story. The brain is a fascinating thing. How did Phineas Gage survive a metal rod through his brain? It bypassed vital regions and flew out the other side. The author doesn't want us to think the brain is totally localized for certain functions - we use our entire brain in subtle ways for our actions. There may be spots that are specialized for sight but we need the whole thing to "really" see. Phineas Gage survived and had a somewhat normal life but as his contemporaries said, he never again was Phineas Gage.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Ms.pegasus

    The title suggests an anecdotal romp propelled by Kean's chirpy narrative voice. However, these props are actually designed to lure the reader's entry into a much more serious domain. Kean's book is arranged as a survey of neuroanatomy. Five broad sections are broken up into individual chapters that each highlight a particular structure: Neurons, the occipital lobe (a key element in visual recognition), the cerebellum (part of a system that modulates motor control), the corpus callosum (the conn The title suggests an anecdotal romp propelled by Kean's chirpy narrative voice. However, these props are actually designed to lure the reader's entry into a much more serious domain. Kean's book is arranged as a survey of neuroanatomy. Five broad sections are broken up into individual chapters that each highlight a particular structure: Neurons, the occipital lobe (a key element in visual recognition), the cerebellum (part of a system that modulates motor control), the corpus callosum (the connection between left and right brain hemispheres), and the hippocampus (a critical componenet of memory storage). Some of his descriptions are unforgettable. Explaining the relationship between the motor cortex and the sensory cortex he writes: “To execute a complicated movement, the motor areas also need feedback from the muscles at each stage, to ensure that their commands have been carried out properly. Much of this feedback is provided by the somatosensory cortex, the brain's tactile center. You can think about the somatosensory cortex as the motor cortex's twin. Like the motor cortex, it's a thin, vertical strip; they in fact lie right next to each other in the brain, like parallel pieces of bacon. Both strips are also organized the same way, body part by body part; that is, each strip has a hand region, a leg region, a lips region, and so on. In effect, then, the motor cortex and somatosensory cortex each contain a 'body map,' with each body part having its own territory. (p.145) Thanks – I guess, Sam. I'll never be able to think of bacon in the the same way now! The brain's localized areas are identified, not to introduce a new phrenology, but to identify the components of complex feedback circuits. Kean's explanation of visual recognition is particularly successful in demonstrating this point (Chapter 4). The tour starts in the occipital lobe. Specific neurons are excited by perceiving lines and their specific orientation: “...the brain determinedly breaks … form down into tiny line segments.” (p.111) An even greater array of neurons are excited when they detect movement. The evolutionary advantage of such a faculty is obvious. David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel shared the Nobel prize in 1981 for their discovery of this visual mechanism. But this is only the beginning. How do we recognize specific objects from this sensory data? How do we remember the categories these objects fall into (e.g. food vs. non-food)? More specifically, how do we recognize faces? Finally, how do we match specific entities to emotional responses? Kean outlines the theory that two major circuits for visual data processing exist. The first circuit is a basic identifier: Where is the object located and how fast is it moving? The circuit includes flow from the occipital lobes to the parietal lobes. The second circuit flows from the occipital lobes to the temporal lobes where information about memory and recognition are transmitted. As for identifying faces, there is an area called the fusiform facial area dedicated specifically to this task. Kean illustrates his examples with cases of brain damage and the resulting inferences. We learn about C.K. who suffered damage that made him unable to distinguish between food and non-food. Despite superior scores on face recognition tests, he was also unable to recognize faces presented to him upside down. We learn about Elliott who, after prefrontal lobe surgery, was unable to make decisions, despite the fact that his memory, language and learning skills were unimpaired. Antonio Damasio believes the key to Elliot's indecision was the impairment of limbic system connections that link emotion to decision making. The most poignant example is that of Clive Wearing, who suffered loss of even short-term memory, which Kean characterizes as the loss of moment-to-moment consciousness. Again, scientists surmise some sort of disruption of the limbic system. They just don't know what. Kean's historical approach serves to highlight the difficulty of neuroscience exploration. Much of this knowledge was gained through means that would be deemed unethical. Neurosurgery was dangerous, and surgeons often performed procedures with little hope for a positive outcome. It also calls into question the idea of “informed consent.” If a patient has neurological damage, how “informed” can his consent be? The animal experiments Kean describes are frequently revolting. I have read several previous books that have touched on neuroscience. I found Kean's book a pleasant combination of familiar material and an easily digestible introduction to broad neurocircuits. Kean obviously hopes the casual reader will find his curiosity piqued and will explore more specialized works on the workings of the brain. My personal preference is to start with the small and specific. Readers of books like Lisa Genova's LEFT NEGLECTED, or Jill Bolte Taylor's MY STROKE OF INSIGHT, might find this book of special interest as a logical steppingstone.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Hayden Houck

    The tale of the dueling neurosurgeons This book interests me a lot. I am very interested in most things science, especially neuroscience. I read the book The Female Brain, and my mom was talking to a friend about that. Her friend gave me this book to read. I'm so glad she did. I love reading things that have to do with science and that have random little fun facts that you can tell to your friends or family. It had a lot of short stories about a ton of cases and some of them are really strange The tale of the dueling neurosurgeons This book interests me a lot. I am very interested in most things science, especially neuroscience. I read the book The Female Brain, and my mom was talking to a friend about that. Her friend gave me this book to read. I'm so glad she did. I love reading things that have to do with science and that have random little fun facts that you can tell to your friends or family. It had a lot of short stories about a ton of cases and some of them are really strange. One is about blind people that learned to see through sensors attached to their tongues. Another was about a traveler that visited hundreds of different places, explored new countries and climbed mountains. He was also blind. He used a cane for echolocation and made his way around the world. He walked, in total, over the distance from the earth to the moon. Stories like these are my favorite, because they should be impossible. A blind man exploring the world? No way. People seeing through their tongues? Yeah right, like they have eyes there. People whose eyes skip over stationary things completely, but only register moving objects? Completely impossible, you say. But no, it's all here, right here in this book that you should have in your hands. I would recommend this to everyone that likes reading. You could hate anything related to neuroscience but love this book and hear yourself talking about it every chance you get.

  9. 5 out of 5

    daisy

    There are so many reviews I need to finish typing up, so I hate to stick another RTC on a book, but... RTC! Interesting blend of history + science. Very easy to read and accessible for people with no background in neuroscience imo. A lot of the science info was stuff I'm already familiar with but it was cool learning about the people who made all of these discoveries. (view spoiler)[Wasn't a huge fan of the way the author seemed to humanise convicted pedophile Gajdusek, though. I'll go into more There are so many reviews I need to finish typing up, so I hate to stick another RTC on a book, but... RTC! Interesting blend of history + science. Very easy to read and accessible for people with no background in neuroscience imo. A lot of the science info was stuff I'm already familiar with but it was cool learning about the people who made all of these discoveries. (view spoiler)[Wasn't a huge fan of the way the author seemed to humanise convicted pedophile Gajdusek, though. I'll go into more detail in my proper review, but... his contributions to the field aside, he was a garbage person and doesn't deserve to be remembered fondly after taking advantage of an isolated culture and the disease afflicting it so he could prey on children. (hide spoiler)]

  10. 5 out of 5

    Nicky

    I’d been eyeing this for a while, but Robert really convinced me to read it. I was worried with that title it would be a bit too silly, but I shouldn’t have worried. The tone can be light, and there are a few jokes cracked and some wry asides, but it’s more scientific than the title suggests, while still being accessible to the general reader. A lot of the cases it discusses were ones I was already aware of, but it added depth and colour. I really need to get round to reading Permanent Present T I’d been eyeing this for a while, but Robert really convinced me to read it. I was worried with that title it would be a bit too silly, but I shouldn’t have worried. The tone can be light, and there are a few jokes cracked and some wry asides, but it’s more scientific than the title suggests, while still being accessible to the general reader. A lot of the cases it discusses were ones I was already aware of, but it added depth and colour. I really need to get round to reading Permanent Present Tense, a book about “H.M.”, or Henry Molaison, which I’ve already got, and I’m curious about Clive Wearing’s wife’s book about his condition (though this youtube video gives you some idea). It also added information about scientists who’ve studied the brain, though I kept muddling up my timelines and getting confused about who discovered what and when, and how it impacted everyone else. It’s arranged more thematically than chronologically, although there is a certain chronological element too (throughout the book, it moves toward more recent incidents and discoveries), so the timeline doesn’t matter incredibly. Altogether, I found it a good primer on the science and history of neurology, for a casual reader, and the notes and such at the back offer plenty more places to dig for interesting information. (Where the library has any of these rather specialised books might be another matter, alas.) Best of all, it never feels like a lecture: the tone is warm, and the author finds the best in people and theories rather than mocking previous insights that turned out to be wrong. Which is wise, since we don’t understand the brain yet, and all of this may yet be overturned again… Originally posted on my blog here!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Joy D

    The subtitle gives the best description of what to expect from this book. Sam Kean traces the history of neuroscience by providing examples of major advances, including brain traumas, experiments, accidental discoveries, and the causes of each. He includes fascinating stories from history. The science is explained in an easily understood manner. It is an informative and entertaining combination of science and history. This book will appeal to anyone interested in how the human brain works.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Rennie

    SO GOOD. Also often very sad. But incredibly interesting.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Wendi

    Fascinating! This entire book was just endlessly fascinating to me. It's all about how traumatic insults to the skull and brain, whether by physical force or insidious viruses, affect our physical abilities and thoughts. Kean expertly weaves storytelling about particular brain trauma patients with carefully explained science. I knew of a few of the conditions discussed, but certainly not in the detail Kean devotes. He explains the process of how damage occurs and then why that damage can cause co Fascinating! This entire book was just endlessly fascinating to me. It's all about how traumatic insults to the skull and brain, whether by physical force or insidious viruses, affect our physical abilities and thoughts. Kean expertly weaves storytelling about particular brain trauma patients with carefully explained science. I knew of a few of the conditions discussed, but certainly not in the detail Kean devotes. He explains the process of how damage occurs and then why that damage can cause conditions like kuru disease, phantom limbs, aphasia, hallucinations. He even touches on the history of scientists and doctors attempting to local the home of the soul in the brain. Kean opens each section with the story of a particular person (or group of people) who has experienced an injury to the brain, and then explains how the doctors of the time attempted to help that victim with their contemporary knowledge. Each story is like a mini-mystery; you receive just enough information to understand the situation and then want to keep reading in order to solve/understand the process along with the doctors or scientists. I don't want to give them all away, but one example is how the cannibals in Papua, New Guinea were felled by kuru; in the end it wasn't because they cannibalized their dead ("eating brains isn't inherently deadly") but rather but rather "the bad luck of eating patient zero." Kean explains why even people born without limbs can experience phantoms, blind people will still respond to smiles or scowls or yawns without even understanding why, how reading changes our brain, why some victims of brain damage can write perfectly well but cannot read (not even the sentence they just wrote), that brains vary from person to person as much as faces do, and how a set of (still living) twins share a conjoined brain and so can do things like taste what's in one another's mouths and yet retain distinct individual thoughts and preferences. Witty, informative, a bit scary. To consider how vulnerable and yet also how resilient our brains are, is just fascinating.

  14. 5 out of 5

    K

    I loved this. Like The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, Sam Kean uses anecdotes and humor to share scientific discoveries that shaped our knowledge of how things work. This book was longer and more detailed, but also more relevant to my field since the focus was on neuroscience. Though lighter in tone than the works of Oliver Sacks, this book similarly contained many fascinating tales of neurological da I loved this. Like The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, Sam Kean uses anecdotes and humor to share scientific discoveries that shaped our knowledge of how things work. This book was longer and more detailed, but also more relevant to my field since the focus was on neuroscience. Though lighter in tone than the works of Oliver Sacks, this book similarly contained many fascinating tales of neurological damage and its idiosyncratic effects. It also asked a number of profound questions about the age-old mind/body problem and whether we truly have free choice given increasing evidence that our personalities and practically everything we do can be located in our neurology. While it helps to have a preexisting interest in the topic, I'm betting that even people who don't think they're interested in the brain could get into this book (hey, it happened to me with the periodic table when I read The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements).

  15. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Edmund

    There is little to say about this book, because it is simply so brilliant. Kean has successfully melded legitimate science with entertaining history, and a touch of historic drama too. His prose is a perfect mix of easy to understand (except for his pictograms, but don't worry) technicality and almost irreverent language which adds to the entertainment. There is little to say about this book, because it is simply so brilliant. Kean has successfully melded legitimate science with entertaining history, and a touch of historic drama too. His prose is a perfect mix of easy to understand (except for his pictograms, but don't worry) technicality and almost irreverent language which adds to the entertainment.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lubinka Dimitrova

    What a wonderful book! Shouldn't have waited so long to read it. What a wonderful book! Shouldn't have waited so long to read it.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Grumpus

    Love me some good brain stories. A still mysterious but amazing organ.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Adam

    Two of the most interesting, engaging, and informative science books I've ever read were published in the last five years and written by the same person: Sam Kean. The first of these books, The Disappearing Spoon, is a history of the varied elements that make up the Periodic Table, which hangs in every American science classroom and is almost Borgesian in its functionality as both a serious emblem of scientific discovery and a series of 118 doorways that open to reveal 118 separate stories. Kean Two of the most interesting, engaging, and informative science books I've ever read were published in the last five years and written by the same person: Sam Kean. The first of these books, The Disappearing Spoon, is a history of the varied elements that make up the Periodic Table, which hangs in every American science classroom and is almost Borgesian in its functionality as both a serious emblem of scientific discovery and a series of 118 doorways that open to reveal 118 separate stories. Kean's second book, The Violinist's Thumb, was a similarly anthological collection of "lost tales," each demonstrating the ways in which our genes have made us into the people we are today. What makes both books so successful, not just as narrative pieces but also works of enlightenment, is Kean's unyielding belief in the people behind these stories. Rather than numb his readers with facts, figures, dates, and academic jargon, Kean distills the most important discoveries of our lifetime--not to mention the last few centuries--into stories of love, death, obsession, resilience, success, failure, and redemption. In some instances, his subjects are unlikely heroes; in others, their genius is tempered by arrogance, jealousy, or even bigotry. But they are human, and the very same men and women who discovered the microscopic bits that make up our universe, our world, and ourselves--the billions of tiny puzzle-pieces that fit together with such impossible precision to make the Everything around and inside us--also allow us to discover them through their work. And in Kean's mind, these two otherwise isolated bodies--the scientist and their science--are inextricably linked and, without one another, incomplete. With The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, Kean has taken on another difficult and long mysterious subject, the human brain...or, as he himself writes, the "electrified tapioca" nestled so precariously in the thick lockbox of bone atop our necks. It is the most important organ we possess--the Everest in the atlas of our bodies--and it is unique among the brains of all other creatures in that it is aware of itself, its functions, and its limitations. The human mind questions the universe and our place in it, ponders the existence of a Higher Power (or lack thereof), debates existential quandaries that are forever unsolvable, and struggles with emotions that even its millions of firing neurons cannot understand, though it expends quite a lot of its energy in pursuit of an answer all the same. And yet, for all its powers, we know so little about it that conflicts and disagreements among the most eminent of experts rage to this day, despite centuries of study. Even with the advent of advanced technology, those three gelatinous pounds remain mystifying, and ironically so: the very organ we use to decode the world around us is incapable of decoding itself. It's in this rich, frustrating, and seemingly fruitless pursuit that Kean finds his stories. Much like his previous books, an outwardly simple scientific task--a cataloging of the world's elements, an analysis of human genetics, and now a study of the human brain--becomes a monumental exercise in patience, dedication, endurance and, frequently, pure dumb luck. The two most unforgettable stories--and for completely different reasons--involve scientists who found themselves in tropical locations thousands of miles from home. The first is story of Carleton Gajdusek, a bombastic and headstrong man who took up residence in the Southern Pacific to study kuru, a degenerative neurological disorder that was devastating an isolated tribe in New Guinea. Earning the trust of the locals, he was able to gather brain and tissue samples from their dead, which he then had to ship back to laboratories throughout the world without a reliable postal service or the assistance of refrigerated transport; by the time he returned stateside, he had gathered enough raw data and materials to diagnose the cause of the tribe's problems. Unfortunately, his return--with quite a few of the island's boys over a number of years--also marked the end of his career, as his sexual predilection for those same boys became known. Gajdusek would die in exile after spending a year in prison, his legacy ruined--a Nobel Prize forgotten--and his otherwise monumental research forever tarnished by his actions. Similarly, the disease he had dedicated much of his life to unraveling and even curing, known as the "laughing disease," ended on its own when the locals stopped consuming the brains of their recently deceased tribespeople. The second story concerns two British soldiers during World War II who also happened to be doctors. Captured by Japanese soldiers and mercilessly starved, they watched as their fellow POWs fell victim to an epidemic of beriberi, which they documented in great detail for months on end but were unable to stop. When it became clear that their research would be confiscated and likely destroyed by their captors, the two men sealed their papers in a tin and buried everything, unsure if they would even survive to see their hypotheses tested. Luckily, both of them did, and their research was retrieved with literally minutes to spare.* In both instances, the scientists involved found themselves in extreme conditions, noticed a devastating health problem, and used whatever they had on hand--makeshift surgical instruments, a cooler, scraps of paper, a tin, and their knowledge of the human body--to work towards a solution, not just to save lives, but to advance science itself. Many of the other stories featured in Kean's book work the same way. In one chapter, a famous neurosurgeon bribes a priest so that his assistant can cut out the glands of a dead man hours before he is to be buried; described as "an illiterate wagon-driver," the man--John Turner--suffered from giantism, and the neurosurgeon is certain the cause is located in his glands. But as the assistant finishes removing the pituitary, the deceased's family breaks down the funeral-parlor door, forcing the young assistant to flee into a waiting taxicab. In another, an epileptic known only as H.M. has pieces of his brain sucked out with a tube; the procedure cures him of almost all seizures but leaves him with almost no memories. In fact, his brain becomes such a mysterious and important part of neuroscience that, after he passes away at age 82, it is removed from his skull, frozen, sliced into more than two thousand micro-thin slices, and scanned at extreme magnification for digital study. I write of these men and their patients in present tense, not only because they are the subjects of narrative nonfiction, but because their work--or, conversely, their ailments--are with us today. They inform modern science in ways that theories, anecdotal tales, and small-animal experimentation never could. Which is the tragedy that underlies much of Kean's book: in order for us to understand the brain as much as we do today, many people--men, women, and children equally--had to suffer. Some of them were unfazed by their ordeals, or they learned to live with what had happened to them, but most experienced pain and misery, if not total loss of life, and because of their own bodies no less. When neurosurgeons today speak of the advancements that have been made and the knowledge that has been gained, they speak of countless patients--dozens, maybe even hundreds of ordinary people--whose lives were unexpectedly interrupted, their bodies and minds forever unfixable. The pursuit of knowledge often claims its fair share of victims--Marie Curie is perhaps the most recognized example of this--but very few areas of science have claimed more than neurosurgery. And still, despite all this, we know very little. Those who taught us through their suffering did so in the beach-waters of an ocean that, even today, seems unimaginable in its breadth and depth. The horizon, unfortunately, is so very far away. *One of the men--Hugh de Wardener--lived long enough to be interviewed by Kean himself for this book. De Wardener passed away in late 2013 at the age of 97. This review was originally published at There Will Be Books Galore.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Amanja

    Author Sam Kean does a wonderful job in this book weaving together human interest stories and historical accounts with complex neuroscience to educate the reader without ever being boring, unapproachable, or condescending. I love this approach to nonfiction writing. It is so much easier to retain the facts when they’re couched in entertaining tales of wild accidents and spontaneous personality changes. There were countless times during this book that I felt the urge to stop and tell someone what Author Sam Kean does a wonderful job in this book weaving together human interest stories and historical accounts with complex neuroscience to educate the reader without ever being boring, unapproachable, or condescending. I love this approach to nonfiction writing. It is so much easier to retain the facts when they’re couched in entertaining tales of wild accidents and spontaneous personality changes. There were countless times during this book that I felt the urge to stop and tell someone what I had just learned. For instance, that a person with a specific brain abnormality can lose the ability to read but retain the ability to write. So I wouldn’t be able to read this book I’m reviewing but I could write this sentence, and then not be able to read it right after! I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s had a slump of nonfiction. They can be fun and this one is proof! for more reviews and content please visit my new blog amanjareads.com

  20. 4 out of 5

    Bennett

    The good: - Interesting and easy to understand stories (for the layperson) - Distinct writing style that kept my attention The bad: - Felt like a collection of separate stories rather than a coherent narrative. Though the author does weave the narratives of subjects introduced in the first half back into the second half. - The “dueling neurosurgeons” of the title seems to represent about a dozen different neurosurgeons. This felt weird, but maybe others interpreted the title in a different way. - I a The good: - Interesting and easy to understand stories (for the layperson) - Distinct writing style that kept my attention The bad: - Felt like a collection of separate stories rather than a coherent narrative. Though the author does weave the narratives of subjects introduced in the first half back into the second half. - The “dueling neurosurgeons” of the title seems to represent about a dozen different neurosurgeons. This felt weird, but maybe others interpreted the title in a different way. - I am not 100% sure what his primary argument is, there seems to be too many vying for top tier. - Sometimes the approachable, layperson language was overly simplistic (this coming from someone whose graduate studies have been firmly within the liberal arts world) Overall, an interesting and explanatory read about what we know (and don’t know) about the human brain. 4/5*

  21. 4 out of 5

    Susanna - Censored by GoodReads

    Another excellent science book from Sam Kean; this one looks at how we learn about the brain and how it works mostly from when things go wrong. Looks at cases ranging from Henri II of France (bashed in the head by a broken tournament lance in 1559) to Phineas Gage (a railway iron went in through one eye socket, and then out the top of his head) and the sufferers from kuru ("the world's rarest disease") in Papua New Guinea. Another excellent science book from Sam Kean; this one looks at how we learn about the brain and how it works mostly from when things go wrong. Looks at cases ranging from Henri II of France (bashed in the head by a broken tournament lance in 1559) to Phineas Gage (a railway iron went in through one eye socket, and then out the top of his head) and the sufferers from kuru ("the world's rarest disease") in Papua New Guinea.

  22. 5 out of 5

    BookishStitcher

    If you are fascinated by the brain then I'm going to bet that you will enjoy at least some part of this book. I found it incredibly fascinating. I've been unofficially studying everything on brain research that I can find for years now. I love where psychology and neuroscience collide. If I could have five careers in my life time a research neuroscientist would definitely be on that list. I will definitely be rereading this at some point. If you are fascinated by the brain then I'm going to bet that you will enjoy at least some part of this book. I found it incredibly fascinating. I've been unofficially studying everything on brain research that I can find for years now. I love where psychology and neuroscience collide. If I could have five careers in my life time a research neuroscientist would definitely be on that list. I will definitely be rereading this at some point.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Book

    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 "The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons" is an excellent collection of stories in neuroscience. Best-selling author and gifted science writer, Sam Kean, provides readers with a real gem. Kean’s great eye for captivating stories about the brain and his expertise in retelling these stories end up helping the readers gain an understanding of how the brain works 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 "The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons" is an excellent collection of stories in neuroscience. Best-selling author and gifted science writer, Sam Kean, provides readers with a real gem. Kean’s great eye for captivating stories about the brain and his expertise in retelling these stories end up helping the readers gain an understanding of how the brain works. This fascinating 377-page book is broken out into the following five parts: Part I. Gross Anatomy; Part II. Cells, Senses; Circuits Part III. Body and Brain; Part IV. Beliefs and Delusions; and Part V. Consciousness. Positives: 1. Science writing at its best. Kean is climbing the echelon of premier popular science authors. 2. Neuroscience is one of my favorite topics and thrilled that a gifted storyteller handled this book. 3. Great format and approach. Each chapter covers an intriguing story about how the brain works yet it flows beautifully as a whole. 4. Plenty of diagrams of parts of the brain and photos that complement this wonderful narrative. 5. Kean excels at keeping it real. He doesn’t oversell what we know and keeps the science well grounded in reality. 6. Wonderful gift of narration that includes a well weaved story based on history and good science. 7. Once again, the impact of religion on science rears its head. “In the early 1200s, the Catholic church had declared that no proper Christians, including physicians, could shed blood; physicians therefore looked down upon surgeons as butchers.” 8. Love how theories of neuroscience are introduced some are ultimately debunked and others have staying impact. “These findings led Cajal to propose the “neuron doctrine,” one of the most important discoveries ever in neuroscience. In brief, Cajal’s neurons were not continuous, but had tiny gaps between them. And they transmitted information in one direction only: from dendrite to cell body to axon.” 9. The analysis of famous assassins’ brains that lead to interesting discoveries. 10. Sometimes asking the right questions are as important as the answers. “Sorting out cause and effect is tricky with brain chemistry: does depression cause changes in brain chemicals, or do changes in brain chemicals cause depression? The street probably runs both ways. But the balance of evidence does suggest that loneliness, isolation, and a sense of helplessness can all deplete neurotransmitters—can poison the soup and sap vital ingredients.” 11. Interesting look at how neurons work. “Overall, just as a wagon wheel will carve a rut into the road after repeated journeys, repeated neuron firings will carve ruts into the brain that make signals much more likely to follow some neural tracks than others.” 12. How vision works. “In fact, our vision is so biased toward movement that we don’t technically see stationary objects at all. To see something stationary, our brains have to scribble our eyes very subtly over its surface. Experiments have even proved that if you artificially stabilize an image on the retina with a combination of special contact lenses and microelectronics, the image will vanish.” 13. A look at how the brain maps the body. 14. An interesting look at a number of interesting diseases involving the brain. “They proposed that kuru, scrapie, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob—which all cause “spongiform” brain damage and can all lie dormant for long periods before roaring awake—were caused by a new class of microbes, which they dubbed ‘slow viruses.’” 15. Excellent examples of specific damages to the brain and its impact. “But around age ten she began suffering from Urbach-Wiethe disease, a rare disorder that petrifies and kills amygdala cells. Within a few years she had two “black holes” where her amygdalae should have been. She hasn’t felt a lick of fear since.” 16. Many revelations in this book, here is one of my favorites: “Temporal lobe lesions can flip people’s sexual orientations from gay to straight (or vice versa), or redirect their sexual appetites toward inappropriate things: common side effects of Klüver-Bucy include zoophilia, coprophilia, pedophilia, and -philias so idiosyncratic they don’t have names.” 17. A look at what happens when brain processes go awry. “Some delusions run so deep that they fray the very fabric of the victim’s universe. With so-called Alice in Wonderland syndrome—a side effect of migraines or seizures—space and time get warped in unsettling ways.” 18. The difference between Broca and Wernicke’s area. “Generally speaking, a broken Broca’s area knocks out speech production, while a wrecked Wernicke’s area impairs speech comprehension.” 19. By far the best retelling of the over told story of Phineas Gage (it’s practically in every book of popular neuroscience). He debunks some myths pertaining to this story, which I found to be quite refreshing. 20. Works cited and so much more… Negatives: 1. Very little not to like about this book. I would have added a timeline or a table of the greatest contributors of neuroscience as a nice additional bonus. 2. Kean stays away from controversial issues. There is very little on intelligence and as I recall nothing on gender differences. He touches upon social justice with regards to crime and punishment but I sense he holds back. 3. I loved the retelling of Phineas Gage’s story but I felt Kean could have done better with the topic of consciousness. In summary, what a fun way to learn about how the brain works; this is a beautifully written and well-researched book that is a joy to read. Fascinating stories about ordinary people who went through extraordinary circumstances and Kean retells their stories with mastery. A high recommendation! Get this book. Further suggestions: “The Disappearing Spoon” and “The Violinist’s Thumb” by the same author, “The Mind’s Eye” and “Hallucinations” by Oliver Sacks”, “Braintrust” by Patricia S. Churchland, "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" by Steven Pinker, “Why People Believe Weird Things” and “The Believing Brain” by Michael Shermer, “Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain” by Michael S. Gazzaniga, “Subliminal” by Leonard Mlodinow, “The Tell-Tale Brain” by V.S. Ramachandran, “Incognito” by David Eagleman, and “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)” by Carol Tavris.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Fatima A. Alsaif

    This is truly a fascinating, informative and a scary book! I'm personally fascinated by neuroscience, human brain and behaviours .. and this is a very good book that shares personal stories of patients that made me think and reflect more about the human brain. That helped me relate and understand the book even more despite me struggling with the book in the beginning. My main feedback (as of now) is that the stories shared felt like a collection of separate stories instead of sticking into one n This is truly a fascinating, informative and a scary book! I'm personally fascinated by neuroscience, human brain and behaviours .. and this is a very good book that shares personal stories of patients that made me think and reflect more about the human brain. That helped me relate and understand the book even more despite me struggling with the book in the beginning. My main feedback (as of now) is that the stories shared felt like a collection of separate stories instead of sticking into one narrative, but that didn't ruin my interest and curiosity while reading the book. Anyway, I highly recommend reading it!

  25. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    You can also find my review of The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons on my book blog The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is a slightly misleading title: there is not a single incident of dueling neurosurgeons in the book. As a non-fiction, popular science primer on neuroscience, however, the books is splendid. I've heard quite a few of the anecdotes / case studies before, but this book pulls together all the incidents and anecdotes that have shaped neuroscience, and presented them in an engaging You can also find my review of The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons on my book blog The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is a slightly misleading title: there is not a single incident of dueling neurosurgeons in the book. As a non-fiction, popular science primer on neuroscience, however, the books is splendid. I've heard quite a few of the anecdotes / case studies before, but this book pulls together all the incidents and anecdotes that have shaped neuroscience, and presented them in an engaging, fun way. It's a "Horrible Histories" book for adults, in some ways. The book is not too bothered about chronological order; instead, it presents the knowledge obtained thus far by brain region and by type of brain functionality. This works very well - but it does give a somewhat more logical and structured impression than the history of neuroscience and its theories probably warrants. And there's always the sense that bigger, clearer discoveries might be just around the corner... Many of the scenarios do resonate with me as a reader & movie watcher: clearly, the likes of Hitchcock and Philip K Dick were inspired very much by real conditions - and the effectiveness of uncanny stories is directly linked to how closely they resemble everyday (or not-so-everyday) brain misfirings... I'd highly recommend this book to anyone - it is a compelling, entertaining and educational read: pop science as it should be done.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Melora

    This was Really fascinating. Kean goes through the history of advances in the scientific understanding of how the human brain works through a series of stories, starting with the damaged brain of Henri II of France, in 1559, and ending with brain science from the early 2000's. He starts with basic brain structure and operation and goes all the way through science exploring mind/brain issues and consciousness. I actually listened to this as an audio book, so I missed out on the diagrams, which I' This was Really fascinating. Kean goes through the history of advances in the scientific understanding of how the human brain works through a series of stories, starting with the damaged brain of Henri II of France, in 1559, and ending with brain science from the early 2000's. He starts with basic brain structure and operation and goes all the way through science exploring mind/brain issues and consciousness. I actually listened to this as an audio book, so I missed out on the diagrams, which I'm sure would have added to my understanding, but even so his descriptions were very clear. A bit too clear, at a few points! The descriptions of brain surgery are sometimes excruciatingly graphic. For the most part, Kean's conversational, humorous style is very agreeable -- he talks about science in a way that a non-scientist can enjoy -- but occasionally his lighthearted tone struck me as a bit crass in the face of the suffering he is describing, and I could have done with a bit less salacious detail about certain side effects of brain malfunctions. Still, those are minor complaints, and I recommend this highly for readers interested in a popular history of brain science.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Nancy Mills

    Love Kean's books, they are all fabulous and so far this is my favorite! I was sorry when it ended. Fortunately he has great footnotes and suggestions for further reading, and a website with the notes for studies which did not make it into his book. (As he writes, electrons on cheaper than ink, thus we are grateful for the internet.) Many, many fascinating case studies. The conjoined twins who share part of a brain are particularly intriguing. They each sort of have their own hemisphere so they d Love Kean's books, they are all fabulous and so far this is my favorite! I was sorry when it ended. Fortunately he has great footnotes and suggestions for further reading, and a website with the notes for studies which did not make it into his book. (As he writes, electrons on cheaper than ink, thus we are grateful for the internet.) Many, many fascinating case studies. The conjoined twins who share part of a brain are particularly intriguing. They each sort of have their own hemisphere so they do have 2 different personalities. One likes ketchup, for example, while the other detests it, and can "taste" it when her sister eats it. I can only imagine the sorts of problems this causes. When they fight and one hits the other, they both feel the pain. I really must read more about these girls, or this girl, not sure whether it would be plural or not. They refer to themselves as I (never "we".) And if this doesn't make you want to jump into this book, I don't know what will.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Correen

    Sam Kean has become my favorite, currently active, science author/interpreter. In this book, he sorts and distills scientific literature about neurological disorders, brain injuries, and illnesses that impact the brain into the parts of the brain most impacted and the stories they generate. Kean then tells the stories of the affected person, the scientists who interact with the patients, interactions with the family and community, and the significance to the understanding of brain functioning. A Sam Kean has become my favorite, currently active, science author/interpreter. In this book, he sorts and distills scientific literature about neurological disorders, brain injuries, and illnesses that impact the brain into the parts of the brain most impacted and the stories they generate. Kean then tells the stories of the affected person, the scientists who interact with the patients, interactions with the family and community, and the significance to the understanding of brain functioning. At the beginning of each chapter, Kean has a puzzle, a rebus, to highlight the part of the brain that is the theme of his stories. He invites readers to email him if they solve all thirteen puzzles or if they need a clue. I will probably write to say I solved all thirteen.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Ruhshan Ahmed Ahmed

    Most of the time, we are unaware of what our brain doing. Most of our life, we are unaware of what our brain capable of. Most of us, are unaware of how horrible life would be if things go south inside the brain. Some of us, who finished reading the book have experienced in a fascinating fashion the progression of neuroscience through centuries, where heroes[as well as villains] are the neurosurgeons themselves! Every chapter made me wanted to touch my own brain, and thank it for a lot of thing.. Most of the time, we are unaware of what our brain doing. Most of our life, we are unaware of what our brain capable of. Most of us, are unaware of how horrible life would be if things go south inside the brain. Some of us, who finished reading the book have experienced in a fascinating fashion the progression of neuroscience through centuries, where heroes[as well as villains] are the neurosurgeons themselves! Every chapter made me wanted to touch my own brain, and thank it for a lot of thing.....

  30. 5 out of 5

    Megan Hawley Steinfeld

    I'm a big fan of Sam Kean in general, but this might be my new favorite. Highly recommend the audiobook version. I'm a big fan of Sam Kean in general, but this might be my new favorite. Highly recommend the audiobook version.

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