For most of civilization, the brain was a lump of phlegm with "no more capacity for thought than a cake of suet," philosopher Henry More wrote in 1652. Our updated hunch about the origins of consciousness is now bound up in hypotheses of large-scale electrical brain networks constantly interacting within uniquely humanoid cerebral anatomy. Technology will surely continue to push neuroscience forward without historical precedent. But the brain is still so frustratingly opaque to any tool of science that the biggest insights often arrive courtesy of chance neurological disaster.
Such is the case of Jon Sarkin's brain anomaly, which Amy Ellis Nutt recounts in her mind-bending new book Shadows Bright as Glass. One morning in 1988, Sarkin, a family-loving, good-humored chiropractor, left the golf course feeling strange, a terrible chatter filling his ears. That was only the beginning. A massive post-brain surgery stroke strangled off oxygen to his cerebellum, and as soon as he opened his eyes in the hospital bed, his wife knew her husband was gone. Sarkin, surprisingly alive and functional, had suffered a brain trauma that would transform him into an eccentric and acclaimed artist — all because a tiny nerve in his skull had snapped out of place.
As Sarkin's healing brain began to reorganize, he became, Nutt writes, "like a man watching a parade, unable to make out the music of the band passing by because it was already mingling with the tune of the one approaching." He was a living lesson in right brain-left brain function. His right hemisphere excelled at creating novel, artistic patterns out of randomness, but struggled to fill in a new autobiographical storyline without the analytics and categorization supplied by the left hemisphere — rich material for Nutt's stated quest to explore mind, brain and self through the aftermath of neurological injury.
The strength of Shadows Bright as Glass is in its deliberate, alternating structure. Nutt shuttles back and forth between real-time scenes of Sarkin's life, and chapters devoted to the neuroscience of perception and creativity, and music and memory; extraordinary cases of savants and split-brain patients; and her own philosophical reflections on these phenomena. The challenging material is never far from hitting home. At one point, she reminds us that we are all one whack to the left temple away from being savants ourselves.
A skilled science writer, Nutt renders complex subject matter accessible to any interested reader through a seamless integration of explanation and storytelling. She doles out the science in good measure, never burying and always enriching the poignant human story.
We are only as real as our brains are intact. And yet, as Nutt reminds us, the mind is more than the brain, created at the dynamic interface between self and other, invented through extended interactions with people and objects. But can science effectively illuminate something so nuanced? The question of how to measure subjective phenomena is arguably the biggest one facing social cognitive neuroscience today. Nutt's medical narrative offers a tantalizing solution to this challenge — that the self-shattering results of brain damage can divulge clues to the ancient mysteries of human experience.
Genevieve Wanucha is a freelance writer living in Boston. She is currently at work on a book about the science of social interaction for Free Press of Simon & Schuster.