The BS Column: Emperors of Exploration

(Published in the Business Standard, February 1, 2011)

In three new books, an oncologist, a physician and a neuroscientist offer astonishing insights into our bodies and minds. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s biography of cancer is a kind of medical war journalism; Oliver Sacks explores the ways in which we might author our own experience; and Vilayanur Ramachandran conducts an investigation into the nature of consciousness.

The body: The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee:
There are many accounts of pandemics, many more of medical heroes, and almost none that approach diseases from a biographer’s standpoint. “This book,” writes the author and oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, “is an attempt to enter the mind of this immortal illness, to understand its personality, to demystify its behaviour.”
Mukherjee’s subject, cancer, chose him. In his years as a medical resident, he writes of his growing understanding of “the dense, insistent gravitational tug that pulls everything and everyone into the orbit of cancer”. And over the 570 pages of this book, he chronicles a medical history littered with defeats and tiny victories, as some of the most persistent and sharp minds grapple with what is perhaps the 21st century’s most feared and misunderstood diseases. Reading The Emperor of All Maladies will be, for all of us, an intensely personal journey: no other disease in our times has cancer’s dark aura, and there are very few of us whose lives are unmarked by its shadow.

The book is also, thanks to Mukherjee’s scholarship and his intense engagement with his subject, one of the great non-fiction works of recent times. Peppered with quotes from Dickens, the poet Audre Lorde, Solzhenitsyn, this is, in the end, an oddly comforting odyssey to follow, and Mukherjee offers an excellent guide through the maze of new treatments and old approaches. “Cancer is not a concentration camp, but it shares the quality of annihilation,” Mukherkee remarks, “…it subsumes all living.” But he ends this monumental, complex biography on a note of familiar hope: the patient he chooses to remember is not one whose cancer goes into remission, but one who summons “all her strength and dignity” in her small contribution to fighting this four-thousand-year-old war.

The mind: The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks.
In his decades as a practicing neurologist, Oliver Sacks has often focused on the rare and the unusual medical syndrome as a way of exploring the human condition in greater detail. The patients in The Mind’s Eye include a pianist who loses her ability to read music, a novelist who can no longer read words, and Oliver Sacks himself, who has to grapple with the effects of an eye cancer that leaves him unable to see on one side.

It isn’t the specifics of each condition that holds our interest as much as the central question: how do you learn to renegotiate the world when speech, or vision, or a way of processing thought, has been so severely damaged? As Sacks puts it: “To what extent are we the authors, the creators, of our own experiences? How much are these predetermined by the brains or senses we are born with, and to what extent do we shape our brains through experience?” This is exciting new terrain; it is only very recently that neuroscientists have moved away from the idea that the brain cannot be substantially changed in adulthood to the idea of “neuroplasticity”.

At one extreme, neuroplasticity drives the wave of self-help literature defined by books such as The Secret, which argues that changing thought patterns can bring fortune into one’s life; at the other, studies of happiness, for instance, have benefitted from the idea that we do shape our own reality, even under extreme and deeply destabilizing circumstances.

Consciousness: The Tell-Tale Brain, Vilayanur Ramachandran
One of the joys of reading Ramachandran’s explorations of neuroscience is his willingness to enter into bold speculation, as he searches for the roots of consciousness in the deep, unexplored recesses of the human brain. This book summarises some of his earlier experiments (recounted in Phantoms of the Brain) and more recent work into mirror neurons, which in Ramachandran’s view are responsible for the human phenomenon of empathy. He has argued that empathy is a necessary component for being human—that our biology, and our neurological systems, are wired for empathy rather than isolation.

In this book, Ramachandran is almost certain to attract criticism from fellow scientists who want more hard data, as he explores the critical question of what makes us human. But The Tell-Tale Brain remains fascinating because of its willingness to think aloud and to take risks. He explores creativity, and our responses to beauty and art, from an unusual standpoint—why do we need to be creative, what use is it to us to have an understanding of beauty? And at the heart of this wise, expansively curious book is one of his own obsessions—what are the roots of self-awareness, and how do we create our own, very individual, models of self?

The Tell-Tale Brain, along with the other two books mentioned, reinforces my growing belief that our best philosophers, in the 21st century, and some of our best writers, come from the medical profession. It is hard not to be moved, and challenged, by the ideas on offer here.





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