Author: Sam Kean
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Summary: Entertaining, wide-ranging look at what we know about the brain and how we know it.
I enjoyed Sam Kean’s earlier book on genetics, The Violinist’s Thumb, and unfortunately delayed reading this book because of the misleading title. To be fair, the subtitle (“The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery”) is much more accurate. While one anecdote does involve two slightly competitive neurosurgeons, the bulk of the book is far more interesting and far more wide ranging history of medical cases that revealed new information about the brain.
This covered some very similar ground to A Molecule Away From Madness (AMAFM), so a comparison to that book was on my mind as I was reading. I liked this book slightly better of the two. It was almost twice as long, which allowed time for more expansive, entertaining anecdotes. The project of this book was also different, in a way that enabled it to be more successful. AMAFM did a truly incredible job of explaining molecular mechanisms in a way that was both accurate and accessible. However, at the point we’re talking about molecular phenomena, I want the details and AMAFM was maddeningly vague. This book focused on more macro level functioning of the brain, identifying regions responsible for specific functions. It also covered some fascinating cases that showed that functions I’d expect to happen in the same region of the brain were actually separate. It was all the detail I wanted and it was still simple to explain, in part because the author picked a less complicated topic.
Another strategy this book employed to great effect was the use of endnotes. The most detailed science (plus some other fascinating digressions) could be tucked away in endnotes. This allowed the interested reader to dig deeper into each topic while preserving readability. I would have loved to see a similar approach in AMAFM. Although that book was a delight to read, it left me turning to google to figure out whether the guesses I made about the scientific details from high level explanations were correct. Both of these book were great reads and I do think AMAFM is the most readable book you’ll find for learning some fascinating info about molecular mechanisms of disease. That said, for me, this book slightly edged it out, with a strategy of spending the time to tell long, engaging stories; a focus on higher level info that didn’t need as much detail; and some additional details as need tucked away in the endnotes.