The Mind and The Brain

SarahBlakemoreSarah-Jayne Blakemore recommends 5 books on the topic, over at Five Books:

Saturday by Ian McEwan. I really like Ian McEwan, and partly because he has an interest in the brain. Saturday is all about a neurosurgeon called Henry Perowne, who works at UCL. McEwan is a very good friend of the head of a neuroscience department at UCL, and he spent many months shadowing neurosurgeons at the National Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Queen Square. The story takes place on one Saturday: the Saturday of the anti-Blair, anti-Iraq war demonstration of 2004 in which millions of people took part. Perowne is walking around Bloomsbury, and gets into a tussle with some men near Tottenham Court Road. It’s not so much the event that matters, but his description of his emotions: it’s like time stands still, and he describes all these different emotions that he feels for pages and pages. Perowne is describing all of his thought processes during this day, and it’s an incredible moment-by-moment interpretation of events, and an amazing insight into the way that emotions cause you to act in the way you do, and the idea we’re in control of our actions – or are we? As one of the guys is beating him up, Perowne is looking at him and recognises that he has the early symptoms of Huntingdon’s disease, which is hereditary, with a relatively early onset – symptoms usually start to appear in the mid-30s – and which affects your motor system and cognition. Perowne starts to diagnose him, and starts to really worry the man, by describing the symptoms the man has been feeling but isn’t really aware of because they’re such early symptoms.

But the book is really a journey into the brain, and how from a physiological point of view things can go wrong in the brain, and that some of those things can be alleviated by surgery, and some can’t. And the substance of the book is about things like emotion and perception of the world, and how the brain controls behaviour. It’s really, really interesting: Ian McEwan does his research so well, and he’s such an eloquent speaker on the topic of the brain. Not having been trained in medicine or science, he is sometimes able to have insights and a perspective that if you’re a specialist in the field you can’t have.