The Secret Family: Twenty-four Hours inside the Mysterious Worlds of Our Minds and Bodies by David Bodanis spends one day in the life of a typical suburban family – mother, father, teenage daughter, 10-year old son, and baby. The family wakes up, eats breakfast, putter around the house, visit the mall, return home and go to bed. Bodanis focuses on all the details of well, just about everything. Much of this is microscopic — what microbes are crawling around the shafts of our eyebrows, what poison gases are welling up under the sink, what the hell are they putting in our food (big thing with Bodanis that gets huge gross-out points), and what germs are floating around the shopping mall. Bodanis also focuses on our human behavior, the things we do without even realizing it, and what qualities are predictors for that behavior. Technology, how it works, and how we work with it is also one of the many things explicated. Often Bodanis brings in brilliant if esoteric historical connections that are reminiscent of James Burke’s Connections. Each page is filled with fascinating details and this book is well worth the read for a quick insight into everyday life.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks is a collection of clinical case studies about people with neurological disorders. My one quibble with this book is Sacks’ writing style. He makes every patient speak like the same person in kind of Mayberry “gosh, golly” tone and frustratingly often makes references to chapters later in the book.
That being said, this book is a fascinating study of the things the brain can and cannot do and how that can shape a person’s perception of the world. Examples include:
- The titular man who mistook his wife for a hat who cannot perceive objects in his immediate vicinity and be able to pick out features but not identify the whole.
- A former sailor whose memories are frozen in 1945, unable to remember things that happen to him even a few moments later.
- A woman unable to have awareness of her own body, or a loss of proprioception.
- A man who cannot recognize his own leg as being part of his body and thus considers it a severed leg laying in his bed (and he falls out of bed each time he tries to throw away the “severed” leg).
- Similarly, a blind woman with cerebral palsy has an agnosia that makes her think her hands are worthless lumps of clay. Sacks is able to nudge her into using her hands and eventually she becomes a sculptor.
- A man whose sense of balance is disrupted by Parkinson’s disease and thus he always leans to one side and is not even aware of it. He develops his own special eyeglasses with a spirit level that he can see to adjust how he stands and walks.
- A woman with visual hemi-inattention who is unable to see anything on her left, or for that matter be aware that there is a left. She has to rotate all the way around in her chair to even see all the food on her plate.
- Witty Ticcy Ray, a man with Tourette’s who finds that Haldol treatment helps him manage a job during the work week but choses to not take medication on the weekends since it hampers his spontaneity and creativity.
- A woman who constantly hears the music of her Irish childhood playing loudly, and other cases of people with a radio in their head.
- A man who killed his girlfriend under the influence of PCP, has no memory of the event, an organic amnesia. After a severe head energy all the memories of the murder return in vivid detail.
- The visions of Hildegard of Bingen and migraine hallucinations.
- The son of a Metropolitan Opera Singer is a musical savant, able to recall Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians by heart even though he could not read.
- Savant twins able to perform mental calculations of numbers and calendar dates with a special attention to numbers that are prime.
- An autistic man able to draw images with great detail to the particulars.
The book is over 20 years old and seems a bit dated (especially in terms of language we’d consider insensitive today, even if they were medical terms), but I enjoyed learning about the losses and gains that can happen within the brain.
One of the things that push my buttons most when following the news is fearmongering. So you won’t be surprised how peeved I am by the following headline.
“U.S. not scared enough of bird flu, Senate told” — By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor. Copyright 2007 Reuters.
I think the last thing that the news media and the government need to be telling our citizens is that they are not scared enough. Improve public health efforts and preventitive means? Yes. Develop preparedness plans to counteract possible outbreaks? Yes. Making people worry? No! Scaring people about one potential disease is counterproductive. We’ve seen in the past few years people stocking up on Cipro that they don’t need and making runs on flu shots that should be reserved for the elderly, children, and other high risk groups. Not to mention that diseases that are already among us are ignored as attention and funds are misappropriated to the scary disease du jour.