Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons - more weird science from Sam Kean

I normally don't get very excited for a book release because I always seem to have lots of books on my reading list. Since I enjoyed the previous books from Sam Kean (The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist's Thumb) so much, I actually set my calendar to remind me about the release of The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. I don't know much about neuroscience, so I knew that Kean would teach me something new. As usual, Kean finds the most fascinating stories to keep you in awe of how the brain works and highlight the numerous ways in which the brain can malfunction.

Phineas Gage and his tamping rod






The theme of the book is that neuroscience is unique in that most of the early lessons about the function of the brain came from observing the behavior of people with damage to a particular region of the brain. This is still the case; a recent story about a young woman without a cerebellum demonstrates the plasticity of the brain and its ability to compensate for problems in even the most seemingly critical parts. The book includes lots of case studies and stories of strange behavior. The final chapter presents the tale of Phineas Gage, who is a bit of a legend in the field of  neuroscience. Sam Kean wrote a piece for Slate about Phineas Gage; I recommend reading it if you want to get a quick idea of whether or not you will like the Dueling Neurosurgeons.

Perhaps the most fascinating tidbit concerned Teddy Roosevelt and his treatment by neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell, whose "West cure" for men included a variety of rugged outdoor pursuits. Before seeking the cure in the 1880s, Roosevelt had been compared to Oscar Wilde for his effeminate voice and foppish mannerisms. As you would expect for the time, Mitchell's cure for women was very different; women suffering from "hysteria" were prescribed long term, isolated bed rest with massages and fatty foods. Many women suffered through this treatment, including Virginia Woolf. (You can read more about the gender-biased treatments of Silas Mitchell here.) Silas Mitchell built his reputation on his work in the area of phantom limb, the phenomenon where an amputee may feel an itch or pain in the limb that has been removed. Radiolab had an excellent story on this topic, which covered the innovative but simple approaches used to treat this strange problem. 

When you hear about people who taste colors or see smells, they are typically exhibiting synesthesia. The most common forms of synesthesia are people who see sounds in certain colors or hear sounds in connection with particular letters or numbers. Physicist Richard Feynman and author Vladimir Nabokov both experienced these sensory combinations (the internet tells me that Lady Gaga was also born this way). The reason that these particular combinations are more common is likely due to brain geography: the regions that analyze sounds, colors, and letters are close together. Interestingly, sixty different types of synesthesia exist, but it is not completely clear what causes this jumbled wiring. It is becoming clear that this commingling of the senses could be a benefit. Some synesthetes have an excellent memory, which they attribute to their unusual perception of the five senses. This correlation suggests that training your brain to link colors and letters, for example, could improve cognitive function. Some synesthetes have links between their sense of smell or taste and the other senses. This causes them to experience sounds or colors associated with some flavors. As you could imagine, this might expand their palate, as described in this NPR story about the benefits of being a synesthete in the food and beverage industry.

Dueling Neurosurgeons was another excellent outing for Sam Kean, who continues to amaze me with stories of weird science. I also loved the rebus puzzles that Kean added at the start of each chapter. Like the DNA acrostic in The Violinist's Thumb, Kean has found a novel way to engage his readers.

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