A British neuropsychologist puts himself in the picture here, revealing his idiosyncrasies and worrying the issue of what we mean by “self” rather than simply presenting a random sample of bizarre cases.
To be sure, the bizarre is there. A right-frontal brain injury leaves one man bereft of emotions and hard-put to start anything. Another, with a mirror-image, left-brain injury, is helpless to prevent emotionally gushing behavior. An autistic patient has a touch of idiot savantism; another woman believes she is dead; a stroke victim confabulates, speaking volumes of made-up stories about herself. Through all these cases runs the common thread of an altered self. Like all good neuroscientists, Broks eschews Cartesian dualism; for him, there is no such thing as a soul, no mind, no “I” apart from the “meat” of the brain. Consciousness too, is a puzzle, as is the idea that the body is the embodiment of self: the boundaries are too fuzzy. These ponderings have an unsettling effect on the reader. We share Broks’s doubts that science can master the enigmas and follow him as he pursues other strange behaviors, including hallucinations and out-of-body sensations. An interesting essay on Robert Louis Stevenson points out that the ideas for stories like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde often came to him in vivid dreams. A science-fiction piece ponders what might happen in space travel if, by some mistake the self that was supposed to disintegrate and re-form on Mars doesn’t, so there are two not quite identical self replicas. Broks has been called the new Oliver Sacks, but he’s not. They both display empathy and intellectual curiosity, but while Sacks is always lyrical yet exact, Broks writes like an impressionist painter, splashing his canvas with vivid colors that capture a moment with emotional force and mystery.
A tour-de-force intertwining of the clinical, the personal, the fictive, and the philosophical that doesn’t always satisfy, but certainly keeps the pages turning.