There are many ways one can paint a portrait of the brain: as an organ that evolved from the simple beginnings as a few neuronal tissues in worms to one of the most interconnected mass of tissues anywhere in the universe perched atop a primate body; as the center of consciousness that questions its own reality; as a biological system whose workings are as beguiling as they are fascinating. Mr Adam Zeman in The Portrait of the Brain paints the human brain in all these ways and more.
The chapters of the book are organized by a clever sequence of case studies. From ailments that are caused by atomic constituents of the brain going awry to genetic causes to psyche to soul. Like the illustrious predecessor Oliver Sacks whose book has since influenced all the later ones, Mr Zeman discusses the patients and their ailing brains with empathy and care.
He discusses cases of chronic fatigue caused by a rare muscle disorder, a young man infected by the mad cow disease caused by rogue proteins, epilepsy, a poignant case of déjà vu in a girl, and many more.
Mr Zeman is a generous author. In the final chapter The Anatomy of the Soul, he shares his own uncertainties about what we have learnt and how many unknowns lie buried in our brains. He ends the book with the following:
“The brain is a vital link in the chain of experience, but not its sole source, its only begetter. We tend to think of it as a kind of magic lantern – once rubbed the right way it gives rise to a stream of invisible, immaterial ‘mind events’ to parallel the visible, material stream of brain events. Perhaps we should think of it instead as an enabler – an immensely subtle instrument that brings us into contact with the world, enabling us to apprehend its extraordinary richness.
But I may have left you feeling cheated. For if this is all that science can offer, a description of events occurring in a highly evolved and educated brain hooked up to a body moving through space and time, has it not failed to capture the essence of experience, the feeling of what it’s like to be alive?
The key of the kingdom
In that kingdom there is a city.
In that city there is a town.
In that town there is a street.
In that street there is a lane.
In that lane there is a yard.
In that yard there is a house.
In that house there is a room.
In that room there is a bed.
On that bed there is a basket.
In that basket there are some flowers.
Flowers in a basket,
Basket on the bed,
Bed in the room,
Room in the house,
House in the yard,
Yard in the lane,
Lane in the street,
Street in the town,
Town in the city,
City in the kingdom.
This is the key of the kingdom.”
This rhyme, Zeman concludes, offers an analogy to the journey travelled in the book, from little atoms to the large brain; it also stands as a metaphor for looking at the brain through the perspectives of both science and art. While science describes the brain that experiences events, art captures the experiences themselves.
I enjoyed reading Mr Zeman’s book. You would too.