At the midpoint of the 1990s, the much-hyped Decade of the Brain, Peter Brook directed a stage version of Oliver Sacks’s book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat at the Cottesloe in London. At one point a patient was presented to a neurologist with a condition known as visual agnosia. The patient watched a screen on which a video of a seashore was depicted. He could describe moving white and blue lines and a strip of yellow: but he could not put it together to say what it was. At the end of the play, all the cast of patients and neurologists came on stage to watch another video: it depicted a PET scan showing the map of a brain gently pulsing in vivid colours. Brook meant his audience to grasp that brain imaging, as a way of understanding the mind, is as empty of meaning as impressions on a patient with visual agnosia. James Le Fanu, like Brook, and indeed Oliver Sacks, passionately believes that the human genome and contemporary neuroscience (the study of the brain and central nervous system) are ultimately futile as explanations of human nature. Le Fanu, a medical doctor by profession, is a very fine and thoughtful writer, a contributor on science and medicine to many periodicals, and author of the magisterial The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine, arguably the best history of public medicine written to date. In this book, a strongly philosophical and historical critique of recent science, he stands out against the tide of effervescent scientific optimism that proclaims imminent explication of what it means to be human. It takes courage to resist that tide.
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