Wow. OK, I usually hate it when people use the word “genius” with such seeming flippancy, but that Guardian “review” on the cover there is spot on this time. Essentially, this is akin to a story-book of neuropsychological case studies, but it is so much more than that. Broks could have just presented case studies and commented on them in an insightful and witty way (a la Oliver Sacks) but I felt so much more drawn in by what he has actually written in this book.
He changes authorial perspective. He jumps from case to case. He writes bluntly about his feelings at the time. He shows the patients’ humanity, but he also lets us know that he, too, is human. This is not just doctor and case studies, this is a group of vulnerable people, thrown together. Some of them have incredibly peculiar brain injuries, which leads them to act or think in bizarre ways, like Jeanie, with her Cotard syndrome, who believes she is already dead. But Broks is sensitive, and treats them as they should be: they are all people.
And more: Broks does some serious introspection. I found these passages deeply (almost embarrassingly) moving: he takes a moment to consider our fundamental loneliness, a subject that is at the root of my depression.
“…through changes in patterns of muscular activity (‘expressions’, ‘gaze’), the face transmits signals about other, more dynamic, features such as our emotional state, our focus of interest, and our immediate intentions. These have a double aspect; part public, part private. You can use facial information to make inferences about my mental state and behavioural dispositions. To that extent the information is ‘public’ because it is there for anyone to see. But you can’t know my thoughts and feelings directly. You can’t experience them.” (p. 112)
Overall, I got the impression that Broks’ work in neuropsychology has made him deeply analyse human frailty. Seeing victims of profound brain damage seems to have made him consider the delicate balance humans are all in. More than once he touches upon the subjects of personal identity and of death.
But in essence, I found the book to be satisfying, and surprisingly uplifting. Despite its difficult subject matter, Broks’ brutal honesty, and the fact that it makes you consider your own mortality quite deeply, this book made me smile. I hope you read it.