Marianne Szegedy-Maszak is a senior editor in the Washington bureau of Mother Jones and the author of “I Kiss Your Hands Many Times: Hearts, Souls, and Wars in Hungary.”
Somewhere, Sigmund Freud must be smiling.
Not the misogynist, sex-crazed, dream-interpreting Freud of so many parodies and misunderstandings, but the 39-year-old Viennese neurologist who labored over an audacious and ultimately failed endeavor he called the Project for a Scientific Psychology. He began in 1895, hoping to combine the psychological observations and insights from his clinical practice with the neurophysiology he had studied, and thereby “furnish a psychology that shall be a natural science” so that the mysteries of consciousness would become as explicable scientifically as, say, photosynthesis. But Freud became frustrated with the project and explored the unconscious instead, by listening intently to his patients as they spoke about their lives, their dreams and the stories they constructed to explain their world.
More than 100 years later, one can see the explosion of work in modern neurology and neuroscience as a natural extension of Freud’s project. And while enormous progress has been made in localizing the most ephemeral emotions in the brain — here is where we feel depressed, here is where we remember our 6th birthday party — it nonetheless falls short in explaining the infinite complexities of the mind. Sure, we know that the prefrontal cortex manages executive function, but the unconscious cannot be located in the highly specific road map that is revealed when a patient surrenders to the omniscient functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or fMRI, which employs noninvasive MRI to map and measure specific brain functions. Or can it?
There is no mention of Freud in another young neurologist’s book, Eliezer J. Sternberg’s “NeuroLogic,” and yet his attempts to grapple with the big questions of identity, the unconscious, the location of the “self” in the brain and mind, and the profound role of narrative make this stand out in the crowded field of books by psychologists, neurologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists and neurosurgeons (not to mention Malcolm Gladwell and his imitators), each armed with an fMRI, a file cabinet packed with studies and a particular, narrow, biological insight into what makes us tick.
A resident neurologist at Yale-New Haven Hospital, Sternberg is the author of two previous books on neuroscience that push the limits of biology to extend into the more abstract, humanistic, even poetic realm of the philosophy of the mind. In “Are You a Machine” (2007) he explored, as the subtitle notes, no less than “The Brain, the Mind, and What It Means to Be Human.” In 2010, Sternberg published “My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility,” which is similarly ambitious, tackling the existential question: “Are we truly in control of our actions?”
Which is to say that Sternberg is not content to remain within the cozy confines of his medical specialty. That’s revealing, not just of his prodigious intellect but also because, as he refuses to be just another neurologist, the subject of his inquiry also refuses to be just another organ. The brain is responsible for art, for imagination, for falling in (and out) of love, for remembering both what really happened and what didn’t, for perceiving the world, for creating and sustaining a sense of self and for shattering lives when it goes out of whack.
Sternberg insists that the compelling “logic” of this complex system of neurons is the brain’s absolute insistence on making sense out of confusion. “Like a movie editor who collects and organizes all the footage and audio to create meaningful stories, the underlying logical system of the brain assembles all of our thoughts and perceptions into a sensible narrative, a narrative that becomes our life experience and sense of self.” And he hopes that by the end of his long tour of the brain and dual levels of consciousness, “you’ll see that there are discrete patterns in the way that unconscious mechanisms in the brain guide our behavior. There is an underlying neuro-logic that drives our experience of the world.”
Sternberg compares himself to “that kid in the backseat of a minivan who asks his parents a question and then, upon hearing an answer, incessantly responds with ‘but why?’ until he drives them to near insanity.” This turns out not to be only a self-deprecating metaphor. Nearly every page is peppered with question marks (one wishes an editor could have helped with more artful transitions). Each chapter title is also a question providing the sometimes-whimsical context for grander inquiries. “Can Zombies Drive to Work?” (Chapter 2), for example, delves into the possibility of human automation. In Chapter 5, Sternberg asks: “Why Do People Believe in Alien Abductions?” The final chapter raises a stirring question: “Why Can’t Split Personalities Share Prescription Glasses?”
In medicine, as in life, much learning occurs when things go terribly wrong. Disorders shed light on what’s involved in healthy functioning. We learn about a number of syndromes and delusions and see some of the ways that our consciousness seeks to make sense of what is happening even as our brains run amok. We meet Amelia, a congenitally blind woman who describes vivid visual images in her dreams, and Jill Taylor, a vigorous, athletic woman who was felled by a “catastrophic stroke” but who was able to visualize physical activity. Billy was a perfectly healthy man who in a span of weeks became catatonic; when he slowly regained speech, he suffered from amnesia. Undeterred, he confabulated elaborate and completely false biographical details. (The mystery of his disorder was solved when he revealed that he had taken lots of the “date-rape” drug ketamine.) But what Sternberg learned from him was not that ketamine is poison but that “behind every seemingly inexplicable act, mannerism, statement, and belief, there is a psychosocial and neurobiological context.”
Consider Evelyn, a 35-year-old blind single mother. No one knew why she was blind, but what brought her into treatment were the horrifying words — “FAT PIG” and “I HATE YOU” — that were inexplicably carved into her skin. Evelyn had no idea how these terrible things could have happened to her, but she acknowledged that before she noticed her injuries, she “lost” time. The victim of terrible abuse as a child, Evelyn suffered from “dissociative identity disorder” (a condition that used to be known as multiple personality disorder), and one of her personalities — Franny F, Cynthia, Sarah or Kimmy — inflicted the violence on her. What makes Evelyn’s case so fascinating was that while she was legally blind, Kimmy’s vision was 20/60. “Evelyn had a Seeing Eye dog, but her alter ego just needed glasses. How is that possible?” Sternberg asks. “After all, both personalities have the same set of eyes.”
I will leave it to you to discover the answer to this and many other questions contained in this audacious, wise and compelling book.
By Eliezer J. Sternberg
298 pp. $28.95