3 April 2008

Paul Broks - Into the Silent Land

Every now and then I read a book that demands to be pressed on to others. This is one of those, a rare work of non-fiction that is written with the style and grace of a novelist.

Paul Broks is a neuropsychologist, which means he tries to explain the structure and purpose of the brain with relation to the behaviour of the individual. His field is similar to that of Oliver Sacks, who popularised neuropsychology with The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings, made into a film with Robert de Niro and Robin Williams. Like Sacks, his stock is unusual and illuminating case history, but he has much more than that.

This book weaves case histories with personal anecdotes and philosophy, but that doesn't begin to explain its charm. It contains meditations on the nature of consciousness and identity, presented in an intimate fashion, relating Broks' own relationship to his science, and to himself. The chapters are short and varied - many of them could well be magazine articles, as they're witty and self-contained, but the book doesn't feel broken up, just pleasingly meandering.

It's occasionally very funny - in one chapter, after telling of people with body dysmorphia, and a need to mutilate or tattoo themselves, he goes home and says to his wife that he's thinking of tattooing his penis. 'With what? 'she says. 'Wolverhampton Wanderers,' he says. She looks at him. 'Maybe just Wolves,' she says.

He uses a variety of narrative styles - one chapter is science fiction, similar to Philip K Dick, exploring how memory is related to identity by positing a future where teleportation is possible, and considering the implications of creating a copy of oneself but not destroying the original. These sort of mental games are the staple of philosophy; Broks' advantage is that he can write so well that the reader is as engaged by the narrative as by the underlying ideas.

Although this is nominally a science book, it is occasionally startlingly moving. One case is of a subject who suffered from a bout of herpes that destroyed part of his brain, particularly the amygdala, which is often seen as the emotional core of the brain, which controls basic responses such as fear and anger. From such cases we can deduce its function - those with an impaired amygdala cannot recognise threatening situations for what they are, and conversely can interpret harmless situations, such as an argument on a TV show, with great alarm. This particular subject, unusually, had a high degree of awareness of his own behaviour, and some articulacy in describing it. One symptom is of an inability to read subtle signals, or to take any message other than literally, and also a need to explain things in detail less he be misunderstood - also recognised as symptoms of types of autism. He says that "I will tell anybody anything - what my parents don't know about my previous sex life isn't worth knowing!" and concludes: "The virus ate my shame." This is simultaneously hilarious and tragic, and very moving - his awareness of his condition brings home that the 'subjects' are also alive and can tell their own story.

This is certainly a book to value and reread. I've already bought two more copies for friends, and will doubtless buy more.



No comments: