The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

  • by Sam Kean
  • Narrated by Henry Leyva
  • 12 hrs and 36 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

The author of the best seller The Disappearing Spoon reveals the secret inner workings of the brain through strange-but-true stories.
Early studies of the human brain used a simple method: Wait for misfortune to strike - strokes, seizures, infectious diseases, horrendous accidents - and see how victims coped. In many cases their survival was miraculous, if puzzling. Observers were amazed by the transformations that took place when different parts of the brain were destroyed, altering victims' personalities. Parents suddenly couldn't recognize their own children. Pillars of the community became pathological liars. Some people couldn't speak but could still sing.
In The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, Sam Kean travels through time with stories of neurological curiosities: Phantom limbs, Siamese twin brains, viruses that eat patients' memories, blind people who see through their tongues. He weaves these narratives together to create a story of discovery that reaches back to the 1500s and the high-profile jousting accident that inspired this book's title.* With the lucid, masterful explanations and razor-sharp wit his fans have come to expect, Kean explores the brain's secret passageways and recounts the forgotten tales of the ordinary people whose struggles, resilience, and deep humanity made neuroscience possible.
*"The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons" refers to the case of French king Henri II, who in 1559 was lanced through the skull during a joust, resulting in one of the most significant cases in neuroscience history. For hundreds of years scientists have gained important lessons from traumatic accidents and illnesses, and such misfortunes still represent their greatest resource for discovery.


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Detailed but not overly Technical

This book comes with a PDF, but it is not too critical to the book. There are little puzzles for each chapter that involves piecing together pictures, letters, and sounds to form a hidden word or phrase, which are mentioned at the start of each chapter, and are mildly interesting but not at all necessary for understanding the material. There are also pictures of where the various parts of the brain are, but again, interesting but not critical.

The book is written for the layman and not overly technical. It covers a bunch on interesting neurological case studies, most of which have been covered in other books. However, Kean does an excellent job of research, and exposition, getting to the essence of the case studies without too much technical detail. I tend to like a lot of technical detail, but I enjoyed this book quite a bit anyway. The stories are interesting, and a number of details that were misreported elsewhere are corrected and clarified here.

The author has a quite graphic style (some might say too graphic). The book is often discussing in vivid detail oozing, infected, dissected, projected, extracted, rotting brain tissue. This did not bother me, but it may be more than some listeners would expect.

If you don’t mind a little grossness, I think most listeners will enjoy this book and at least get something to think about.

The narration is excellent, very upbeat and high energy, without being sappy.

There are other books on this subject, that I think I learned more from, but none that I enjoyed more, plus this made several subtle, yet important, points not presented elsewhere and corrected commonly misreported stories that I thought I knew.
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- Michael "I focus on fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, science, history, politics and read a lot. I try to review everything I read."

History and neuroscience in a favourable mix

An effective way to learn a subject or learn about a new scientific discipline is to study its history. A historical approach will give you a deeper understanding of how observations and ideas developed into the theories we have today. An added benefit is that a historical approach makes you feel clever, because let's face it, whatever the subject people used to have some very strange ideas. The history of neuroscience, which is still I would say in its infancy, has many prime examples of historical folly.

The fascinating stories told in this book stretches all the way back into medieval times, specifically to King Henry V and his death caused by an intracranial hemorrhage in 1559. From there, the book goes to the inflammatory debate between the Sparks and the Soups. The Sparks claimed that neurons were physically connected and transmitted electrical impulses whereas the soups argued that there were gaps between neurons and that they communicated using signaling molecules crossing these gaps. (The answer, as is often the case, is somewhere in between because some neurons are physically connected via so-called gap junctions although the norm is that neurons communicate using signal molecules as the Soups argued.)

Many of patients that the reader meets in this book are also described in your average neuroscience\neuropsychology textbook. The major difference between this book and the textbooks is that here the author is not trying to bore you to death. Sam Kean knows what makes a story entertaining and he does not shy away from providing juicy details for fear of appearing unscholarly.

For example, we meet the infamous 'Tan Tan' who, independent of the question asked, answered: “Tan Tan” except when he was furious and he suddenly gained access to a larger vocabulary (especially curse words). One thing you don't read in textbooks is that Tan Tan was often kind of an egotistical jerk who stole things from other mental patients around him.

Another patient celebrity is Phineas Gage, who got a metal rod right through his head and brain but somehow survived. It turned out that his moral intuition was damaged, however. The squeamish reader might want to skip this chapter because it also describes the immediate aftermath where his doctor scooped up some of Gage’s brain with his bare hands, having difficulties deciding what to do with the gore. We also meet SM, who, a patient who following the removal of her amygdala, had a desire to pet venomous snakes even though she claimed to be afraid of them. My favorite case though is that of Supreme Court Justice Douglas, who got a stroke and became paralyzed but then insisted, privately and publicly (and probably to himself), that he was not paralyzed. When probed on why he sat in a wheelchair he claimed that didn't feel like standing up or something like that.

There are many many more persons/patient described in this book, and I do not want to spoil too much of the book which is a must-read for people interested in what happens when the brain do not function normally. The elegant mixture of case reports, contemporary theories, and modern neuroscience results in an excellent book that is both entertaining and educational.
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- Neuron "Family father, neuroscientist, and non-fiction addict."

Book Details

  • Release Date: 05-27-2014
  • Publisher: Hachette Audio