Conversations with Neil’s Brain

Neurophysiologist William Calvin and neurosurgeon George Ojemann have collaborated to produce an account of modern brain science that reads like a novel. The book is cast as a series of conversations with Neil, a patient about to undergo delicate brain surgery to relieve intractable epileptic seizures. Neil, actually a composite of many patients, is presented as a highly intelligent and inquisitive engineer, whose thoughtful questions about his own condition, the workings of his brain, and the possible consequences of his surgery create a compelling personal framework for in-depth discussion of what humans do and do not know about the organization of the human brain.

Arranged thematically, the conversational topics include the nature of consciousness; the acquisition, loss, and reacquisition of language; what it means to “pay attention;” how memories are stored; disorders of thought and mood; how the brain analyzes visual images; and why most—but not all—humans can read so well. Among the most fascinating conversations take place in the operating room where Neil, awake and with a section of his brain exposed, undergoes careful electrical stimulation of his cortex to map the precise sites that allow him to name picture in English or Spanish; to read; to remember; to sequence the facial movements necessary for speech.

The book’s final chapter is a fascinating discussion of theoretical models of brain organization. From research on patients such as Neil, neuroscientists are feeling their way toward a model infinitely more complex than a computer disk, with different kinds of information recorded in different sectors; instead, the brain’s functional organization seems to be based on ever-changing spatiotemporal patterns of neuronal activity. This heady discussion is brought down to earth by Neil’s persistent, but as yet unanswerable, inquiry, “Where in my brain is the real me?” Calvin and Ojemann have produced a stimulating and readable exploration of this central question.