The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery by Sam Keane
“Above all, we know that there’s a physical basis for every psychological attribute we have: if just the right spot gets damaged, we can lose just about anything in our mental repertoire, no matter how sacred.”
In my last review of a nonfiction book, I wrote that I rarely read nonfiction. Recently, however, books like this one have helped reduce the internal stigma I held toward nonfiction reading. I started this book for school, but only needed to read the 3 chapters for the assignment. Originally, I read the three required chapters then cast the book aside and moved on to other assignments, but I found myself wanting to finish it on my own time.
The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is an examination of the human brain and the connections between the physical aspects of our bodies (lobes, neurons, muscles, etc.) and the less tangible aspects of our existence like our thoughts, personalities, and our free will (if it exists at all...). Keane uses many different historical cases and patients to explore the various ways that the brain can be damaged and/or changed, be it through disease or injury. Some of the cases he talks about are pretty well known, like Phineas Gage, who is often called the father of modern neuroscience ever since a massive pointy rod went through his head and he exhibited no obvious symptoms -- he didn’t even lose consciousness -- except mysterious changes in personality visible only to those closest to him. Many of the people he talks about, though, are fascinating examples of how intricate and mysterious the brain really is.
Keane’s writing is compelling and colorful, which really helped me stay engaged. His voice shines through in almost every page, and there is an extensive appendix offering extra information and funny additions to the text at the end. Although there is a lot of sciencey speech, he makes most of it familiar enough that normal people can follow along and have at least a pretty good idea of what he’s talking about. I really liked how the book was based around historical anecdotes and personal stories, because it helped me get into the book in the same way I would with a work of fiction. I recommend The Tale of Dueling Neurosurgeons to anyone interested in learning or thinking about how we, as humans, think and behave, as well as fans of more niche characters in history. This book is probably best for fans of science since there is quite a bit of scientific language and concepts, but even if you don’t like science this book will probably still interest you with its quirky and mysterious stories.
Are you interested in reviewing for the Robbins Library? Check out our How to Volunteer Page!