Quotes from The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

“Whenever we read about people’s lives, fictional or non-, we have to put ourselves into the minds of the characters. And honestly, my mind has never had to stretch so far, never had to work so hard, as it did to inhabit the minds of people with brain damage.”

“People who suffer a stroke in the brain’s voluntary movement centers often have trouble smiling on command: the right side of their mouths might perk up, while the left side droops pitifully. Tell them a joke, though—something that engages a genuine emotion—and they’ll often brighten right up with full, radiant, symmetric smiles. That’s because the limbic system connects to the face through different axon channels than our voluntary motor centers do; the limbic brain can therefore still move the facial muscles whenever we ourselves feel moved.”

“In many cases what drew me to these stories was the very commonness of their heroes, the fact that these breakthroughs sprang not from the singular brain of a Broca or Darwin or Newton, but from the brains of everyday people—people like you, like me, like the thousands of strangers we pass on the street each week. Their stories expand our notions of what the brain is capable of, and show that when one part of the mind shuts down, something new and unpredictable and sometimes even beautiful roars to life.”

“It’s a lesson, sadly, we’re still relearning today. Rope-a-dope boxers and quarterbacks and hockey enforcers continue to shake off concussions on the theory of no blood, no harm. But each concussion effectively softens up the brain and ups the chances of more concussions. After multiple blows, neurons start to die and spongy holes open up; people’s personalities then disintegrate, leaving them depressed, diminished, suicidal. Four centuries have passed, but macho modern athletes* might as well trade pads for armor and go joust with Henri.”

“Scientists often call the human brain the most elaborate machine that ever existed. It contains some hundred billion neurons, and the tip of an average axon wires itself up to thousands of neighbors, producing an inordinate number of connections for analyzing data.”

*All quotes are form The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery by Sam Kean


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