BY SEAN CLARK
[This creative exploration of neuropsych is a C4 Great Read.]
2003, Grove Atlantic
Filed Under: Nonfiction
I’m not particularly well-versed in neurospsychology, but I find it endlessly fascinating. The human is brain is impossibly complex, as it must be to allow us our existences as impossibly complex creatures. Neurospych appeals to me because it walks a somewhat precarious line between science and philosophy. (I personally consider all psychology to be a primarily philosophical pursuit–despite the empirical evidence the field has compiled–and the flip side to the physical study of the brain approached through neurology.) In this book, Broks, an accomplished neurospsychologist, writes of his field with the air of a skeptic. He’s sold on the science, but not on all the assumptions that are drawn by his contemporaries. He questions just what is buried in the mind. As a casual reader, he appealed to my sense of curiosity, and informed my layman knowledge. He also turns out to be strong with words, so reading the book was a pleasure.
This book is unique from other nonfictions I have read. Please note, I don’t read all that much nonfiction, so I can’t make the best comparison. I’ve seen Broks compared to Oliver Sacks more than once, so if you’ve read him, that might give some idea. This is not the type of causal, watered-down lecture science book that I expected. Unlike books like How We Decide or Bonk, Into The Silent Land features a strong narrative and a strong narrator. The book is subtitled Travels in Neuropsychology and the verb choice is apt. There is a strong sense of exploration or journey that arises while reading this book.
Broks opens with an interaction with one of his patients, Michael, who has lost control of his empathic response thanks to a brain injury sustained when detangling a kite from a tree. He cries when he sees a beggar, he can’t help but tell strangers they are attractive. Throughout the book we meet more patients, all of whom have had a personality altered by a injury or disease or disability in the brain. From the outset, we see that Broks is keenly interested in the identity of self, in the soul. It’s something he struggles with. He agrees with the consensus of the field that there is no soul, so invisible ball of whatever that contains our being or essence. Yet Broks is not prepared to concede that we are merely a collection of electronic responses. He knows he is he. When he is with his patients (and shares them with his readers), he does not see intelligent machines malfunctioning, they aren’t robots going haywire and in need of reset buttons. Broks describes them as unique individuals, with something more than organics holding them together. And those with the difficulties, he seems to view as trapped.
He has done his homework. In the earlier parts of the book, he covers thousands of years of philosophical thought on the nature of the self. He explains different viewpoints, and relates them to his field of study. What he relates is initially the self as “a story…from the raw materials of language, memory, and experience.” He describes the self as ever-changing, yet continually unique, singular, and identifiable. And for someone who won’t concede the existence of a soul, he flirts with something in that ballpark:
Minds emerge from process and interaction, not substance. In a sense, we inhabit the spaces between things. We subsist in emptiness. A beautiful, liberating, thought and nothing to be afraid of. The notion of a tethered soul is crude by comparison. Shine a light, it’s obvious.
So as the book goes on, it becomes a travelogue of sorts. Not across the discipline of neuropsych, though we are offered a nice fundamental explanation, but into Broks’s own search for self. He’s looking for some answers as to just what makes us us, but he’s also expressing his own interest in what makes him him. The deeper we get into the book and this exploration, the more interesting it becomes, and the more Broks proves himself a talented writer. He approaches his investigation with honesty and clarity, and also with a strange sense of humility. Portions of the book occur as conversations between him and a mysterious (to him and us) voice, as if his ego has joined as a separate character. He shares with us quick forays into his own fancies and imagination. The whole thing begins to feel a bit like Virgil and Dante exploring the Inferno–or Dante and Beatrice exploring Paradiso, depending on how you want to view self-awareness.
Occasionally, he’ll pull a strange calling attention to himself as narrator– “(I have a train to catch)”–which does a fantastic job of elevating the book to a literary level. Furthermore, he’s good with words. The block quote above might be evidence enough of that, but here’s another example I quite liked:
If you mean something supernatural like my soul slipping out of my skin and flying around, no, I don’t think it’s possible. But the thought is still terrifying. I don’t believe in ghosts, but, on balance, I’d rather pitch my tent on a campsite than in a graveyard.
I’ve not really bothered expressing the different neurospsych elements Broks introduces in his book. There are many, and after reading it I have a much firmer understanding of what the field is all about. He does a good job of that. But that is not what this book is about. In the end, this book depicts a journey, a search for self as deep and well-rendered as many great novels. This is the most successful nonfiction book I have ever read. Much like his profession walks the line between science and philosophy, his book balances education and introspection in a narrative that is both entertaining and edifying. I can’t recommend it enough.