A neuropsychologist’s grief memoir embedded within a series of eclectic musings on consciousness.
Broks (Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology, 2003) lost his wife after a long battle with cancer. The days and months leading up to and away from her death—she chose palliative end-of-life care over aggressive but unpromising chemotherapy—opened newly personal dimensions to the questions of existence he had long been investigating as a researcher. The resulting assemblage follows no recognizable schema: The author invites readers to wander at will through this “ramshackle house of a book,” a loose collage of memories, dreams, brain science, quotations, philosophies of mind, journal entries, and earnest pencil sketches, with the story of his grief and recovery turning up from time to time amid the bric-a-brac. Alongside the brain candy of unusual case histories—e.g., people caught in the nightmarish hallucinations of sleep paralysis or who suddenly stop recognizing their own body parts as belonging to them or who suffer from Cotard’s syndrome, in which they believe they are dead—Broks weaves in entry-level overviews of anatomy, philosophy, myth, and literature, with a predilection for the Greeks and the Stoics. This boldly casual exploration, in which a grieving brain scientist wrestles with his own experience of the mystery of awareness and the perennial problem of mind, is less about epiphany than apophany, the moment when perception goes off the rails into delusion. Some chapters delve into theoretical territory that might leave general readers disturbed or mystified, such as the author’s support for a colleague’s claim that up to 10 percent of people are “philosophical zombies,” engaging in normal-seeming behaviors despite an observable lack of sentience in their brain imaging. In a style sometimes reminiscent of The Last Lecture, Broks blends wonder with pessimistic hope. He adumbrates that there is something unbelievable, perhaps even magical, in the “absurdity” of consciousness and related phenomena, and he thrills to the precarious individuality of our imaginings.
A unique addition to the realm of popular brain science.