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William Calvin & George Ojemann
Conversations with Neil's Brain: The Neural Nature of Thought & Language

“I’m still going fishing in my stream of consciousness... you’ve got to feed a stream of consciousness with a variety of new facts, keep feeding it all the time — if you want to get something new and interesting to pop out, every now and then. You’ve got to keep reading, keep trying out ideas for size, keep rearranging them to find something better.” (p. 291)
At first glance, this book appears to be aimed at friends and family of and those afflicted with epilepsy. One soon finds out, however, that the contents are very informative and applicable to everyone. Those with kids, or just planning on having a family in the future, and anyone (meaning everyone) who ages stands to gain much from this account aimed at a general audience. The authors essentially turn what may otherwise be considered textbook information into an entertaining dialogue.

The book is packed with very clear illustrations which assist in explaining what may otherwise be an overly confusing and complex subject--the human brain and how its various functions create the mind. As someone whose father has suffered from a stroke, I feel like I understand, for the first time, the actual reasons why his personality has shifted in various ways. Also of great interest to me personally (as a father of young kids) is the discussion of how the brain can be radically enhanced by the environment provided to small children. "Use it or lose it" is a very literal fact when used in regard to the neurons that achieve their peak (in terms of numbers) when a baby is only eight months old.

Memory is another aspect covered which I found very intriguing. Its malleable nature, 'physical' structure, retrieval mechanisms, and other characteristics are worthwhile points to ponder (and possibly consider skeptically when trusting your own and that of others). The various means that have allowed us to know about the brain are also detailed. Ranging from the tracking of individual neurons to more "second-hand" experimental studies--the methods are sometimes as interesting as the findings.

The final chapter at the end of the book includes William Calvin's theory of consciousness which is basically Darwinian competition at the level of the mind. Anyone interested in the causes of the change in behavior witnessed after a stroke or other head injury, the way the brain works (including language), disorders and disabilities (Alzheimer's, Dyslexia, Amnesia, Aphasia, ADD, Obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.), or 'just' consciousness in general should read this book as a starting point for their studies.

from the publisher:
In a series of highly charged encounters before, after, and during neurosurgery, an epileptic patient, Neil; his surgeon, George Ojemann; and neuroscientist William Calvin explore the intricate landscape of the brain, and in so doing, reveal the mystery of human memory, thought, and language.

With novelistic detail, Conversations with Neil's Brain tells the story of a man offered the promise of surgery that can end his seizures. But with the opportunity for such a dramatic cure comes risk. The surgeon must remove a portion of Neil's temporal lobe, and if the instrument is off, the mistake could alter or erase essential parts of Neil.

To avoid causing such irreparable harm, George Ojemann must develop a detailed map of the individual patient's brain, a map that identifies each specific region responsible for each highly specific function--the kind of map that can be developed only by probing for responses from the patient while he is awake and able to communicate, but while his cerebral cortex is exposed.

Conversations with Neil's Brain takes us inside the operating room and allows us to be part of this eerie process of discovery, using it to provide a unique window on human consciousness and the nature of human identity. As we begin to understand, one region of cortex determines Neil's ability to follow a joke to the punchline; another determines his ability to recognize a face. A slip in one direction might damage Neil's ability to read, but not his ability to write. A different slip could wipe out Neil's ability to speak Spanish (his second language) but not his native English. Another could leave him able to identify an animal as an elephant, but never able to remember that its name was Babar.

The mapping of Neil's brain brings to life as never before the astounding specificity by which the brain operates, making clear why reading, learning, memory, and decision making are so complex, and why such afflictions as learning disabilities, mental disorders, Alzheimer's, and strokes are so baffling. In the context of this surgical drama, it also provides an intensely compelling read.

"Thinking along with Calvin is sheer delight."
-- Daniel Dennett, author of Kinds of Minds
"As always, Calvin's insights are novel and provocative."
-- Roger Lewin, author of Patterns in Evolution : The New Molecular View
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