The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons
by Sam Kean
reviewed by Julia Yellen
Sam Kean’s nonfiction-science novel, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, brings readers on a journey through time, describing freak accidents and spontaneous illnesses. Kean skillfully dissects the history of our intricate brain with dozens of sufferers' immensely interesting and detailed anecdotes. The inner workings of our complicated brain remained a mystery to early neuroscientists, who relied mainly on tragedy to infer about it. The guess-and-check system revealed the brain’s many secrets by observing victims’ brain damage, insanity, and miraculous recovery over time. Scrutinizing thousands of injuries, neuroscientists concluded how almost all of our brain works and how the many parts work together. Readers dive into cases of kings, assassinators, cannibals, phantom limbs, pathological liars, giants, epileptics, and many more anomalies. We explore how our plastic brains wire and rewire themselves to survive, even against all odds, to compensate for lost skills. Masterfully written, the novel “illuminate(s) how the brain… work(s) (or fail(s) to)… and lays crucial groundwork for understanding how the brain influences the body” (Kean 194). While some stories remain tragic, others inspire, such as tales about blind adventures that learn to see with their tongues using echolocation.
A beautiful mix between history and science, the book reveals fresh insight on human resilience in the face of unimaginable struggle. Readers learn to love the heroes whose harsh experiences shaped modern neuroscience. Kean embraces humanity by sarcastically pointing out our flaws, but offers hope and sparks curiosity on the deeper questions of neuroscience. Kean uses cogent and funny language with a deeply interesting perspective on all aspects of the brain. This brilliant author does not write your average monotonous scientific article; this book is an exploration: an accumulation of inspiring and mind-blowing stories that will leave you wanting more from the minute you read the first page. Instead of boringly reciting brain scan studies and summarizing patients’ symptoms, Kean allows readers to experience victims’ feelings, living in their shoes for a chapter. We visualize what it is like to have synesthesia, a condition that blends senses, for example; imagine smelling key-lime-pie every time you see the number five. He tackles complicated subjects with witty narrating and expands our expectations of our brains’ capabilities. Each section unravels a new complication, starting with cells, senses, and circuits to movement and emotion to beliefs and delusions, and finally to memory, identity and consciousness. Fresh, new stories and chapters reveal closer insight and keep readers on their toes. I would recommend this wholeheartedly to anyone who loves to learn new things (scientific or not), but also enjoys reading many quick, compelling plots in one book. Of course the science-lovers will never put this book down, but it compels even the most cynical. I loved the deep-thinking aspect of the book and the wide diversity in stories. I greatly encourage you to pick this one up as soon as humanly possible to get a taste for yourself the brilliance that is Sam Kean and The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons.