Book Review: Paul Broks’ “Into the Silent Land” – by Don Alhambra

broksThis month I was going to review a book on sleep, but when I tried to find it to write the review it had vanished under one of the piles of stuff that tend to accumulate in my room. So instead, I bring you a book I bought and read some time ago, and chanced upon as I was looking for the other one. It’s called Into the Silent Land, by neurologist Paul Broks. Sleep can wait for next month.

The premise of the book is simple: the brain is a vastly mysterious object, and when it goes wrong it very much affects our idea of what it means to be human. While techniques such as neuroimaging have enabled us to see more clearly than ever what is going on inside our heads, the brain is a closed book to most of us – a black box, to use a behaviourist metaphor, where stimuli go in and responses come out. But this simplistic explanation does not take into account the fact that in between stimulus and response there are many internal brain states as sensory information is processed and transformed into action by complex and intricate machinery. When that machinery stops working properly, it is the job of the neurologist to tease out the problems and, where possible, recommend treatment.

Broks is such a doctor, and in this book he not only explains what it is like when brains go wrong but also tackles some of the deeper philosophical issues that a non-dualistic worldview brings up. In an opening chapter that gets straight to the meat of the problems of brain injury, he describes two patients with damage to the frontal areas of their brains: Stuart and Michael. Stuart has damage to his left frontal lobe, and his neurological problems are characterised by lack of drive, the inability to get started on tasks and his emotional coldness. Michael has damage to his right frontal lobe, and his problems are quite the reverse: an inability to inhibit himself, especially emotionally, and he is also unable to stop himself saying inappropriate things in social situations.

All this is all very clinically interesting, but Broks brings the tales of Michael and Stuart and the other patients he describes to life. He writes in the way I love to read: in a flowing, often whimsical manner that is interrupted occasionally by tangents that take the train of thought somewhere else, and perhaps return it to the main thread with a different cargo. Not to mention his habit of jotting down conversations he has with people in his head. The book is alternately poetic, clinical, full of human warmth, fascinating and terrifying. To think that so much of what we are capable of as humans is down to the squishy mess in our skulls. It boggles the mind to think about it, even for me, and I think about the brain every day.

There are other stories of interest too. If you ever wanted to know what happened to Einstein’s brain, Broks tells all in his characteristic style. If you were to wake up one morning and suddenly be unable to remember the last 23 years of your life, what would that do to you as a person? And what would happen if Star Trek-style teleporters became a reality? If you stepped into a box, were annihilated instantaneously, and the information about the configuration of atoms and molecules in your body was beamed elsewhere to be reconstructed? What happens to you? More worryingly, what happens if something goes wrong, and you’re not annihilated after all, but your information is still reconstructed at the other end…? In an entertaining fictional thought experiment, Broks explores this last question quite carefully.

I highly recommend this book for all those who are interested in the inner workings of the brain. As I mention above, Broks not only explores neuropsychology and what happens when the brain goes wrong, but also delves deep into the philosophy of mind and even touches on some religious issues concerning where modern neuroscience is taking us – issues of souls and consciousness that I am sure Nexus readers will be aware of. I doubt that many will be as perturbed as theists are likely to be when they stop focusing on evolution and really understand how little scope there is for the soul in the machinery of the brain, but having these issues laid out explicitly still gives one pause.

All in all an excellent book, and I very much urge you to let Paul Broks take you into the silent land.

Don Alhambra is a Research Fellow in Neuroscience at the University of Birmingham, UK. He can be found mainly at the Heathen Hangout or the Heathen Hub.