Local author Sam Kean on his mind-blowing ‘Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons’


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Want to become famous in the field of neuroscience? You could go the usual route, spending decades collecting advanced degrees, slaving away in science labs and publishing your results. Or you could simply fall victim to a freak accident.

The stars of local science writer Sam Kean’s new book, “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons,” (which he’ll discuss Saturday at Politics and Prose) took the latter route. Be it challenging the wrong guy to a joust, spinning out on a motorcycle, or suffering from a stroke, these folks sustained brain injuries with bizarre and fascinating results. One man, for instance, lost the ability to identify different kinds of animals but had no trouble naming plants and objects. Another man lost his short-term memory. The result? A diary filled with entries like: “I am awake for the very first time.” “Now, I’m really awake.” “Now, I’m really, completely awake.”

Unfortunate mishaps like these have advanced our understanding of how the gelatinous gray mass that (usually) stays hidden inside our skulls gives rise to thoughts, feelings and ideas, Kean says.

“Traditionally, every major discovery in the history of neuroscience came about this way,” he says. “We had no other way of looking at the brain for centuries and centuries, because we didn’t have things like MRI machines.”

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Rather than covering the case studies textbook-style, Kean provides all the gory details. Consider Phineas Gage. You may remember from Psych 101 that Gage, a railroad worker, survived having a metal rod launched through his skull. You might not know, however, that one doctor “shaved Gage’s scalp and peeled off the dried blood and gelatinous brains. He then extracted skull fragments from the wound by sticking his fingers in from both ends, Chinese-finger-trap-style,” as Kean writes in his new book.

“The punchline to Phineas Gage is that he turned into this drunken lout, this criminal, and when you read that you think, ‘Oh that’s what happens when you get brain damage to the frontal lobe. You turn into this terrible person,’  ” Kean says.

That turns out not to be true. Historians recently found evidence that, while Gage’s personality did change following his injury, he went on to lead a surprisingly normal life — in Chile. For eight years, Gage worked as a stagecoach driver on narrow, mountainous trails, a job that required loads of brainpower and social skills.

While Gage’s story is one-of-a-kind, his resilience is typical, Kean says. People routinely recover brain function following grievous injuries, and many go on to lead relatively normal lives.

“Even Phineas Gage got better,” Kean says. “That’s really an important message for people to hear.”

Brain Gains

Scientists have learned a lot about the brain through the misfortunes of others. Here are a few of the interesting injuries covered in Sam Kean’s new book:

KING HENRI II OF FRANCE
Accident: Hit with a lance during a joust in 1559
Symptoms: Though his skull remained intact, a concussion caused Henri’s brain to swell, causing him to blink in and out of consciousness until he croaked.
We learned: Concussions can be as deadly as bloody head wounds.

A PATIENT KNOWN AS “K.C.”
Accident: Skidded off an exit ramp on his motorcycle in 1981
Symptoms: K.C. wasn’t able to remember any incidents from his own life, but had no problem recalling facts and trivia.
We learned: The deep brain structure known as the hippocampus, which K.C. damaged, probably controls access to previously stored autobiographical memories.

A PATIENT KNOWN AS “C.K.”
Accident: Hit by a car while jogging in 1988
Symptoms: C.K. couldn’t identify any objects, but had no trouble putting names to faces.
We learned: The fusiform face area processes faces somewhat independently of other brain areas.

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sat., 6 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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