Sunday, March 12, 2017
REVIEW: The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: And Other True Stories of Trauma, Madness, Affliction, and Recovery That Reveal the Surprising History of the Human Brain (audiobook) by Sam Kean, narrated by Henry Leyva
This is going to be short, because I never really bother to take notes while listening to audiobooks, and I finished this audiobook almost three weeks ago. I had to look up nearly all of the names used in this review.
This book used specific examples and case studies of individuals with brain injuries to explain how the brain works. The examples included people I’d heard of before, like Phineas Gage and his iron rod, and people I had not, like Daniel Carleton Gajdusek and his work on kuru (and his conviction for child molestation, holy crap). The author included a wide variety of examples, although at times I felt that his choices were a little U.S.-centric. At least two examples involved U.S. presidents.
The narrator did a nice job and was really easy to listen to. My only complaint was that his tone was occasionally a little too light. The writing often walked a very fine line between entertaining and sensitive (these were real people, and many of them had been horrifically injured), and Henry Leyva’s tone occasionally added a greater note of humor to the text than I felt was appropriate.
While the information and examples were interesting, this book is definitely not for everyone. It was extremely gruesome at times, although there was only one part (Phineas Gage’s initial “treatment”) that included a warning. And while, OMG, that part was awful, there were lots of other examples that made me cringe and/or left me feeling angry about some of brain research history.
For example, I had known a little about Wilder Penfield and his use of electrical stimulation of the brain before performing brain surgery in order to reduce post-operative side effects. I think I might have even seen video of him doing it once, although maybe I'm thinking of someone else. At any rate, I recall the patient looking surprisingly at ease - aside from the exposed brain, not really the stuff nightmares are made of. That wasn't the case with another individual Kean discussed, whose name I can’t recall and haven’t been able to successfully Google. That particular individual essentially electrocuted an unfortunate woman’s brain until she died, published the results, and was then surprised when the medical community came down on him like a ton of bricks. He insisted he’d gotten her consent, but 1) she had probably been incapable of giving informed consent and 2) no one would have knowingly consented to what she went through before she died.
There were also many, many examples of horrifying animal experiments. Again, I didn’t write down the names of all the researchers and haven’t been able to track them down, but one in particular stuck in my head. This researcher operated on rats, swapping the nerves in (I think?) their hind legs. He’d then electrically shock one leg. The rats would feel the pain in the other leg, and he wanted to see if they’d learn to adjust their responses. However, they never did - they’d favor the leg that was in pain, which put more weight on the leg that was really being injured, which put their other leg in even more pain. This same researcher performed similarly horrifying experiments on fish.
All in all, this book both fascinated and repelled me. If I had been reading it, rather than listening to it, I imagine I’d have skimmed more than a few parts.