The study of the human brain is a history of people who somehow walk away from terrible accidents and illnesses, but don’t manage to walk away unmarked. There are the difficulties of Phineas Gage (who survived a railway spike through the head), or conjoined twins Tatiana and Krista Hogan (Their brains are joined and they go through life sensing each other’s pain, tasting each other’s food where one sister hates ketchup and the other loves it--how very awkward.) These are the sorts of things that let scientists pick apart just what that lump inside the skull does and how it does it.
Sam Kean’s book is full of these amazing stories: people who can’t remember, people who can’t forget, people who can’t recognize their loved ones, and people who can’t recognize themselves. Kings, presidents, repairmen, and soldiers are all there; all more vulnerable then any of us would like to be. Imagine being convinced that the people you love have been replaced by strangers, or that the limb that you had to have amputated is still racked with pain. Or imagine that your hand is still there, where it was, but seems to have taken a sudden dislike to you and moves to thwart you as you go through life. These case studies are the fodder of neuroscience.
But The Tale of Dueling Neurosurgeons gives you more than strange cases and the break down of what those cases mean about our own brains, more than scientists behaving badly in their desperate attempts to find answers, or to convince others of their conclusions. Sam Kean also takes the time, in his casual, friendly style, to show how, sometimes, people adapt. I’ve read many takes on the histories of some of these patients and this is the book that let me see them as humans, that makes me root for their recovery.