The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery


By Sam Kean

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The author of the bestseller The Disappearing Spoon reveals the secret inner workings of the brain through strange but true stories.

Early studies of the human brain used a simple method: wait for misfortune to strike — strokes, seizures, infectious diseases, horrendous accidents — and see how victims coped. In many cases their survival was miraculous, if puzzling. Observers were amazed by the transformations that took place when different parts of the brain were destroyed, altering victims’ personalities. Parents suddenly couldn’t recognize their own children. Pillars of the community became pathological liars. Some people couldn’t speak but could still sing.

In The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, Sam Kean travels through time with stories of neurological curiosities: phantom limbs, Siamese twin brains, viruses that eat patients’ memories, blind people who see through their tongues. He weaves these narratives together with prose that makes the pages fly by, to create a story of discovery that reaches back to the 1500s and the high-profile jousting accident that inspired this book’s title.

With the lucid, masterful explanations and razor-sharp wit his fans have come to expect, Kean explores the brain’s secret passageways and recounts the forgotten tales of the ordinary people whose struggles, resilience, and deep humanity made neuroscience possible.


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Rebus–n., a puzzle that involves piecing together pictures, letters, and sounds to form a hidden word or phrase. For example,

N.B.: I've included a rebus at the start of each chapter, to highlight that chapter's theme and content. If you succeed in decoding all thirteen, drop me a message at, and brag a little. :) Or, if you get stuck, go ahead and e-mail me anyway, and I can give you a hint…


I can't fall asleep on my back—or rather, I don't dare to. In that position I often slip into a fugue state where my mind wakes up from a dream, but my body remains immobile. In this limbo I can still sense things around me: sunlight trickling through the curtains, passersby on the street below, the blanket tented on my upturned feet. But when I tell my body to yawn and stretch and get on with the day, nothing happens. I'll recite the command again—Move, you—and the message echoes back, unheeded. I fight, I struggle, I strain to twiddle a toe or flex a nostril, and it does no good. It's what being reincarnated as a statue would feel like. It's the opposite of sleepwalking—it's sleep paralysis.

The worst part is the panic. Being awake, my mind expects my lungs to take full, hearty breaths—to feel my throat expanding and my sternum rising a good six inches. But my body—still asleep, physiologically—takes mere sips of air. I feel I'm suffocating, bit by bit, and panic begins to smolder in my chest. Even now, just writing this, I can feel my throat constrict.

As bad as that sounds, some sleep paralytics have it worse. My episodes don't last that long: by concentrating all my energy, Zen-master-like, on twitching my right pinky, I can usually break the trance within a few minutes. Some people's episodes drag on for hours, full nights of torture: one Korean War vet reported feeling more terror during a single episode of sleep paralysis than during his entire thirteen months of combat. Other people nod off narcoleptically and slip into this state during the day. One poor woman in England has been declared dead three times and once woke up in a morgue. Still other people have out-of-body experiences and feel their spirits careening around the room. The unluckiest ones perceive an evil "presence"—a witch, demon, or incubus—pressing down on their necks, smothering them. (The very "mare" in nightmare refers to a witch who delights in squatting on people's chests.) Nowadays people sometimes weave this feeling of paralysis into alien abduction stories; presumably they're strapped down for probing.

Sleep paralysis doesn't actually open a portal into the supernatural, of course. And despite what I may have thought when young, sleep paralysis doesn't offer proof of dualism, either: the mind cannot appear outside the body, independent of it. To the contrary, sleep paralysis is a natural by-product of how our brains work. In particular, it's the by-product of faulty communication among the three major parts of the human brain.

The base of the brain, including the brainstem, controls breathing, heart rate, sleeping patterns, and other basic bodily functions; the brainstem also works closely with the nearby cerebellum, a wrinkly bulb on the brain's derriere that helps coordinate movement. Together, the brainstem and cerebellum are sometimes called the reptile brain, since they function approximately like the brain of your average iguana.

The second part, the so-called mammal brain, sits deep inside the skull, just north of the brainstem. The mammal brain relays sensory input around; it also contains the limbic system, which helps capture memories, regulate emotion, and distinguish between pleasant and rotten experiences. Unlike the instinct-driven reptile brain, the mammal brain can learn new things quite easily. To be sure, some neuroscientists deride the mammal/reptile division as too simplistic, but it's still a useful way to think about the brain's lower regions.

Both of these nether regions control automatic processes, things we don't think about, or want to. This autopilot frees up the outermost part of the brain, the primate brain, for advanced duties, especially in humans. We can further divide the wrinkly primate brain into four lobes: the frontal lobes (near the front of the brain), which initiate movement and help us plan, make decisions, and set goals; the occipital lobes (back of the brain), which process vision; the parietal lobes (atop the brain, the pate), which combine vision, hearing, touch, and other sensations into a "multimedia" worldview; and the temporal lobes (side of the brain, behind the temples), which help produce language, recognize objects, and link sensations with emotions.

The reptile, mammal, and primate brains constantly exchange messages, usually via chemicals, and their various internal structures work together almost seamlessly. Almost.

Deep inside the reptile brain sits the pons, a hump in the brainstem an inch long. When we fall asleep, the pons initiates dreaming by sending signals through the mammal brain to the primate brain, where dreams stir to life. During dreams, the pons also dispatches a message to the spinal cord beneath it, which produces chemicals to make your muscles flaccid. This temporary paralysis prevents you from acting out nightmares by fleeing the bedroom or taking swings at werewolves.

While mostly protective, this immobility sometimes backfires. Sleeping on your back can collapse the airways in your throat and deprive the lungs of oxygen. This isn't a huge deal during nonparalyzed, nondream sleep: the parts of the brain that monitor oxygen levels will rouse your body a little, halfway to waking, and you'll snort, shift your head, or roll over. To get oxygen during dream sleep, though, the brain has to order the pons to stop paralyzing your muscles. And for whatever reason—a chemical imbalance, a frayed neural wire—the pons doesn't always obey. So while the brain succeeds in rousing the mind a little, it can't turn off the spigot for the paralysis chemicals, and the muscles remain limp.

Things go south from there. If this limbo persists, the mind wakes up fully and, sensing something amiss, trips a circuit that includes the amygdala, a structure in the mammal brain that amplifies fear. A fight-or-flight response wells up—which exacerbates the problem, since you can't do either. This is when the panic starts. And again, some people have it much worse. At least with me, the actual dream I'm having stops as soon as my mind wakes up. Not so in some people: they never quite escape the dream state. They're semialert to their surroundings, they're paralyzed, and their brains keep conjuring up dream nonsense. Because the human mind is quite good at making spurious connections, they then link the characters in these hallucinations to their paralysis, as if one caused the other. It's no wonder some people believe in demons and aliens: they actually see and feel them.

So, yeah, there's a reason I don't sleep on my back anymore. But even though I dreaded the experience, sleep paralysis did teach me something valuable about the brain: that everything is interconnected. Starting with nothing but chemicals way down deep in the reptile parts, I could nevertheless—if I followed the tumbling dominoes far enough and patiently worked my way up from chemicals to cells to circuits to lobes—gain insight into the most rarified realm of the human mind, a belief in the supernatural. One little brain malfunction could be parlayed into so much more.

In fact, the more I read about neuroscience and the interplay of different neural structures, the more I realized that this huge yield wasn't unusual. Tiny flaws in the brain had strange but telling consequences all the time. Sometimes these flaws wipe out general systems like language or memory. Other times, something very specific dies. Destroy one small node of neurons, and people lose the ability to recognize fruits and vegetables but not other food. Destroy another node and they lose the ability to read—even though they can still write. Still other malfunctions tack a phantom third arm onto someone's torso, or convince her that the very hand on the end of her arm belongs to someone else. Overall, these flaws reveal how the brain evolved and how it's put together, and I realized that you could write a whole natural history of the brain from just such cases…

Until the past few decades, neuroscientists had one way to plumb the human brain: wait for disaster to strike people and, if the victims pulled through, see how their minds worked differently afterward. These poor men and women endured strokes, seizures, saber gashes, botched surgeries, and accidents so horrific—like having a four-foot iron javelin driven through the skull—that their survivals seemed little short of miracles. To say these people "survived," though, doesn't quite capture the truth. Their bodies survived, but their minds didn't quite; their minds were warped into something new. Some people lost all fear of death; others started lying incessantly; a few became pedophiles. But however startling, in one way these transformations proved predictable, since people with the same deficit tended to have damage in the same area of the brain—offering vital clues about what those areas did. There are a thousand and one such stories in neuroscience, and The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons recounts the best of them, resurrecting the lives of the kings, cannibals, dwarfs, and explorers whose struggles made modern neuroscience possible.

Many of these people's lives are inherently dramatic, because their ailments felled them within days, even minutes. And as far as possible, rather than just recite the details of doctors' visits or provide a litany of one damn brain-scan study after another, this book enters into the minds of victims, to give you a sense of what it's like actually living with crippling amnesia or the conviction that all your loved ones have been replaced by imposters. While some of the stories have familiar characters (it's probably illegal to write about neuroscience nowadays without mentioning H.M. or Phineas Gage), many characters will be new. Even with some of the standbys, like Gage, much of what you "know" is probably wrong. Not all the stories are tragic, either. Some are plain enchanting, like those about people whose senses fuse together in trippy ways, so that odors make noises and textures produce flashes of color. Some are uplifting, like tales of blind people who learn to "see" their surroundings through batlike echoes. Even the stories about accidents are, in many cases, stories of triumph, stories about the brain's resiliency and ability to rewire itself. And these tales remain relevant to neuroscience today: despite the (often overhyped) advances of fMRI and other brain-scanning technologies, injuries remain the best way to infer certain things about the brain.

In general, each chapter here recounts one narrative tale; that's how the human brain remembers information best, in story form. But beneath these ripping yarns there are deeper threads, threads that run through all the chapters and bind them together. One thread concerns scale. The early chapters explore small physical structures like cells; think of these sections like individual red and green and yellow fibers to feed into a loom. With each successive chapter we'll cover larger and larger territories, until we can see the full Persian carpet of the brain. Another thread concerns neural complexity. Every chapter adds a little more ornament to the rug, and the motifs and themes of the early chapters get repeated later on, allowing you to see the brain's intricate, interlocking patterns more clearly the closer you look, with each passing page.

The book's first section, "Gross Anatomy," familiarizes you with the brain and skull, providing a map for future sections. It also shows the genesis of modern neuroscience from one of the most important cases in medical history.

"Cells, Senses, Circuits" delves into the microscopic phenomena that ultimately underlie our thoughts, things like neurotransmitters and electrical pulses.

"Body and Brain" builds upon those smaller structures to show how the brain controls the body and directs its movement. This section also shows how bodily signals like emotions bend back and influence the brain.

"Beliefs and Delusions" bridges the physical and mental, showing how certain defects can (à la sleep paralysis) give rise to tenacious, and pernicious, delusions.

Finally, all these sections build toward the last section, "Consciousness," which explores memory and language and other higher powers. This includes our sense of self—the "inner you" we all carry around in our heads.

By book's end you'll have a good sense of how all the different parts of your brain work, and especially how they work together. Indeed, the most important theme in this book is that you can't study any part of the brain in isolation, no more than you can hack the Bayeux Tapestry up and still grasp its intricacies. You'll also be prepared to think critically about other neuroscience you read about and to understand future advances.

Above all, I wrote The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons to answer a question, a question that has clawed at me ever since those first scary episodes of sleep paralysis: where does the brain stop and the mind start? Scientists have by no means answered this question. How a conscious mind emerges from a physical brain is still the central paradox of neuroscience. But we have some amazing leads now, thanks largely to those unwitting pioneers—those people who, usually through no fault of their own, suffered freak accidents or illnesses and essentially sacrificed a normal life for the greater good. In many cases what drew me to these stories was the very commonness of their heroes, the fact that these breakthroughs sprang not from the singular brain of a Broca or Darwin or Newton, but from the brains of everyday people—people like you, like me, like the thousands of strangers we pass on the street each week. Their stories expand our notions of what the brain is capable of, and show that when one part of the mind shuts down, something new and unpredictable and sometimes even beautiful roars to life.


The Dueling Neurosurgeons

One of the landmark cases in medical history involved King Henri II of France, whose suffering foreshadowed almost every important theme in the next four centuries of neuroscience. His case also provides a convenient introduction to the brain's layout and general makeup.

The world would have looked stunningly, alarmingly bright to the king of France, then suddenly dark. During the charge, little light penetrated the cocoon of his helmet. Darkness was safety. But when the visor was wrenched open, the sunlight punched his eyes, a slap as sharp as a hostage would feel the moment the bag was torn off his head. In his last split second of normal life, Henri's eyes might have registered a glimpse of the scene in front of him—the glint of sand kicked up by his horse's hooves; the throbbing white ribbons wrapped around his lance; the glare off the armor of his charging opponent. As soon as he was clobbered, everything dimmed. Just a handful of doctors in the world in 1559 could have foreseen the damage already diffusing through his skull. But even these men had never worked on a case so important. And over the next eleven days, until King Henri was past danger, most of the great themes of the next four centuries of neuroscience would play themselves out in the microcosm of his brain.

The unlikely king, unlikely queen, and unlikely royal mistress were celebrating a supposed end to violence that day. Queen Catherine looked like royalty itself in a gown of silk interwoven with gold fibers, but she'd actually grown up an orphan. As a fourteen-year-old in 1533, she'd watched helplessly as her family, the Medici of Florence, negotiated her marriage to an unpromising prince of France. She'd then endured a decade of barrenness with Henri before saving her life by squeezing out two heirs. And throughout it all, she'd had to endure the rivalry of her cousin Diane. Diane de Poitiers had been married to a man forty years her senior until just before Catherine's arrival in Paris. When he died, Diane donned black and white (French mourning colors) in perpetuity, a show of piety. Yet this thirty-five-year-old beauty lost no time in turning cougar on the fifteen-year-old Prince Henri, first enslaving him with sex, then parlaying this hold over him into real political power, much to the queen's disgust.

Le Roi, Henri II, had never been groomed for the throne; he'd become heir apparent only when his handsomer and more charming older brother died after a game of tennis. Henri furthermore had a tough early reign. Paranoid about Protestant spies, he'd started chopping off the tongues of "Lutheran scum" and burning them at the stake, making himself hated throughout France. He'd also prolonged a series of stupefyingly complex wars with Spain over Italian territories, bankrupting the realm. By the late 1550s Henri owed forty-three million livres to creditors—over twice his yearly income—with some loans at 16 percent interest.

So in 1559 Henri abruptly brought peace to France. He signed a treaty with Spain, and although many (including Catherine) fumed over Henri's giving away Italy, he stopped the ruinous military campaigns. Two important clauses in the treaty established alliances through marriages—an immediate wedding for Henri and Catherine's fourteen-year-old daughter to the king of Spain, and a second for Henri's spinster sister to an Italian duke. To celebrate the marriages, Henri organized a five-day jousting tournament. He had to borrow two million livres more, but workmen spent May and June ripping up cobblestones and packing down sand near Henri's palace in Paris to make a jousting list. (Protestants awaiting punishment in nearby dungeons could hear the clamor in their cells.) A few weeks before the tournament, carpenters erected some rickety timber galleries for royal guests and draped them with standards and banners. On the day of, peasants climbed onto rooftops to point and holler.

On the third day of festivities, a Friday, June 30, Henri himself decided to joust. Despite the heat he wore fifty pounds of gold-plated armor adorned with Diane's colors, mostly black-and-white swirls. Whatever his faults, Henri looked regal upon a horse, and he entered the list on a handsome, chestnut-colored steed. During his first run he unmanned (which is to say, unhorsed) his future brother-in-law with a blow from his lance; a short while later he unmanned a local duke, knocking him onto his arse as well. When young, Henri had had a reputation as a brooding sort, but he was in high spirits that day, and arranged for a third and final joust against a powerful young Scotsman, Gabriel Montgomery.

The king and Montgomery put perhaps a hundred yards between them, and when a trumpet sounded, they took off. They clashed—and Henri got his bell rung. Montgomery bludgeoned him just below the neck, and Henri lost a stirrup and nearly careened off his horse.

Embarrassed, the king wheeled around and announced that "we" would tilt with Montgomery again—a bad idea for any number of reasons. It violated the laws of chivalry, as he'd already jousted the maximum three times. It also spooked his court. Catherine had dreamed the night before of Henri lying facedown in blood, and two of her astrologers had already prophesied the king's doom. (One of them, Nostradamus, had written a quatrain four years earlier that read, "The young lion overcomes the old / on the field of war in single combat. / He pierces his eyes in a cage of gold. / Two wounds one, then dies a cruel death.") Unnerved, Catherine sent a messenger to warn Henri off.

Finally, Henri had been suffering from vertigo and headaches recently, and his attendants found him shaken after his latest joust. Cruelly, though, a blow to the head can cloud someone's judgment when he needs it most, and like a linebacker or boxer of today, Henri insisted on jousting again. Montgomery demurred, and the crowd watched in embarrassment as Henri berated him and challenged him—on his allegiance, before God—to tilt again. At 5 p.m. they lined up. Some eyewitnesses later claimed that an attendant fastened the king's visor improperly. Others said that Henri wiped his brow and, in his fog, forgot to refasten the visor. Still others insisted that he cocked it up, in spite. Regardless, this time Henri didn't wait for the trumpet before charging.

During a joust, a low timber fence separated the combatants, and they charged each other left shoulder to left shoulder, shield hand to shield hand. They held their fourteen-foot wooden lances in their right arms and had to angle them across their bodies to strike. A proper blow therefore not only jolted but twisted the opponent, and the force often broke the lance. Sure enough, the king's lance shattered when it met Montgomery, and Montgomery's lance exploded into splinters when it struck the king just below the neck. Both men jerked, and the courtiers in hose and doublets, the women adorned with ostrich feathers, the peasants hanging on the eaves, all of them whooped at the teeth-rattling blow.

The action, though, was not over. Given the commotion, no one quite knows what happened next. Perhaps Montgomery's broken shaft buckled upward like an uppercut, or perhaps a splinter of wood leapt up like shrapnel. But somewhere in the melee, something knocked open the king's gold-plated visor.

Now, many contemporaries blamed Montgomery for what happened next, because the moment his lance splintered he should have flung it aside. But the brain can react only so quickly to stimulus—a few tenths of a second at best—and a brain fogged from jousting would have responded more slowly still. Besides, Montgomery had an awful momentum, and even as the crowd's roar lingered, his horse took another gallop. An instant later the jagged lance butt in his hand struck the king dead between his eyebrows. It raked across his naked face, wrenching his skull sideways and digging into his right eye. He pierces his eyes in a cage of gold.

But Nostradamus spoke of two wounds, and a second, deeper wound, to Henri's brain, proved worse. Compared to those of most mammals, the four lobes of the human brain are grotesquely swollen. And while our skulls provide some good protection, the very hardness of the cranial bones also poses a threat, especially since the skull is surprisingly jagged on the inside, full of edges and ridges. What's more, the brain actually floats semifreely inside the skull; it's attached to the body really only at the bottom, near the stalk of the brainstem. We do have cerebrospinal fluid between the skull and brain to buoy and cushion it, but the fluid can absorb only so much energy. During impact, then, the brain can actually slide counter to the skull's motion and slam into its bones at high speed.

As the butt of Montgomery's lance struck home, Henri would have felt both a blow and a twist, like a mean hook to the jaw. The blow likely sent a small shock wave through his brain, a ripple of trauma. The rotational force was likely even worse, since torque stresses the brain unequally at different points, tearing at its soft seams and opening up thousands of microhemorrhages. Henri, an expert equestrian, nevertheless kept his saddle after the impact: the muscle-memory circuits in his brain kept him balanced and kept his thighs squeezing the horse. But on a deeper level, the twist and the blow tore open millions of neurons, allowing neurotransmitters to leak out and flood the brain. This would have caused untold numbers of other neurons to fire in panic, a surge of electrical activity reminiscent of a mini-seizure. Although few men of science believed in such things, at least one doctor in Paris knew that Henri had suffered a mammoth concussion.

After the clash Montgomery yanked his horse's reins and whirled to see what he'd done. Henri had slumped down onto the neck of his Turkish steed, a horse forevermore known as Malheureux, unlucky. But however unlucky, Malheureux was disciplined, and when it felt its reins slacken upon Henri's collapse, it kept galloping. The now-unconscious king bobbed on his horse's back as if keeping time, his visor clanging down on the shards of wood protruding from his eye.

The two greatest doctors in Europe would soon converge on the king, but before they could do so, courtiers and sycophants of all stripes poured out of the stands toward Henri, each one craning for a glimpse and calculating whether his fortunes would rise or fall if Le Roi died. To most observers the entire French monarchy now looked as rickety as the timber grandstands. The dauphin (the heir apparent) was a frail, milquetoast boy of fifteen; he fainted at the mere sight of Henri's injury. The shaky truce between Catherine and Diane depended entirely on Henri's living, as did the false peace between other political factions. The two royal weddings, not to mention the peace of Europe, threatened to unravel as well.

Eased down from his horse, Henri lay stunned. Montgomery pushed to the front of the crowd to beg, somewhat incongruously, that the king both forgive him and also cut off his head and hands. Upon surfacing to consciousness, the king instead absolved him, without beheading or behanding. Henri drifted in and out after that, and finally insisted on rising and walking (albeit with support) up the palace steps to his bedroom. His physicians set about removing a four-inch splinter from his eye, but had to leave many smaller ones in place.


  • Longlisted for the 2015 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

    One of Amazon's Best Books of the Year: Science

    One of The A.V. Club's Best Books of 2014

    A Goodreads Choice Awards Finalist: Nonfiction

    "This is Sam Kean's finest work yet, an entertaining and offbeat history of the brain populated with mad scientists, deranged criminals, geniuses, and wretched souls. The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is one of those books that will have you following your friends around, reading passages out loud, until they snatch the book away from you and read it for themselves. Good luck getting it back."—Amy Stewart, author of The Drunken Botanist
  • "Put your Netflix queue on hold. Sam Kean's The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons will command your full attention from the first page. It's not just an engaging guide to mysteries of existence; it's compelling story-telling for anyone with a taste for the bizarre and metaphysical."—William Poundstone, author of Rock Breaks Scissors
  • "In tale after tale, best-selling author Kean provides a fascinating, and at times gloriously gory, look at how early efforts in neurosurgery were essentially a medical guessing game.... Entertaining and quotable, Kean's writing is sharp, and each individual story brings the history of neuroscience to life. Compulsively readable, wicked scientific fun."—Kirkus
  • "Reading this collection is like touring a museum of neuroscience's most dramatic anomalies, each chapter taking us to a different place and time.... Kean's colloquial language and intimate voice bring all of this series of mini-histories to life -- all of which are sure to stimulate a wide range of brains."—Publishers Weekly
  • "[Kean] proves an able guide, connecting each story with the science behind it, always with an air of enthusiastic curiosity."—Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe
  • "[Kean's] strength lies in his storytelling, and in the humane combination of humor and compassion toward the strange life histories he pieces together.... Kean has a penchant for the kind of vivid description that makes one want to clutch one's head tenderly close."—Margaret Quamme, Columbus Dispatch
  • "To pick up one of these stories is to lose oneself in them. Where does the brain end and the mind begin? Curious readers will find both brain and mind fully revved up while engaging with this powerfully appealing and thought-provoking work of neuroscience history."—Donna Chavez, Booklist
  • "The author's skill in illuminating how the brain functions and malfunctions manifest themselves in people's lives makes for absorbing reading....These avowals ultimately raise weighty, compelling questions about the nature of identity and what it means to be human."—The Wall Street Journal
  • "Strokes, seizures, accidents: if they don't kill, they can traumatize the brain so badly that an individual's personality can be significantly changed. But, explains New York Times best-selling author of the terrific The Violinist's Thumb, early neuroscientists saw such traumas as an opportunity to study the brain's wondrous workings."—Library Journal, "Barbara's Picks"
  • "Beyond paying tribute to the scientific advances these patients made possible, Kean humanizes the patients themselves."—Scientific American
  • "After tackling DNA and the periodic table in his previous books, Kean has moved on to the human brain, which he dissects via dozens of vivid anecdotes.... His subtle meta touches are a heady delight."—Joe McGovern, Entertainment Weekly
  • "Sam Kean can spin a tale as well as any fiction writer....Kean is a rare writer who approaches science writing as a child would a playground at recess. It's a wide-open field full of possibilities, limited only by the surroundings and what our imaginations can do with them."—PopMatters
  • "In the capable hands of science writer Sam Kean, stories of brain injuries shine just a bit brighter, illuminating not only the interesting characters delivering bedside diagnoses or lying on the examination table, but general principles of scientific discovery that are still relevant today....Kean breathes life into the patients as well as the physicians and scientists tasked with understanding the injuries."—The Scientist
  • Kean is "science's premier storyteller, the man who regularly turns the history of science into sagas filled with adventure, mystery, fascinating people, and fun."—The Washington Post
  • "Entrancing.... Sam Kean burrows into the workings of an organ once deemed as unknowable as the far reaches of the galaxy, and does so with boyish charm, accessible language, a prodigious amount of enthusiasm and the sobering realization that throughout history a catastrophic brain injury has ghoulishly been the neuroscientists best friend."—James Macgowan, Toronto Star
  • "These stories are entertaining....But they're also illuminating, as Kean shows how each one advanced scientific knowledge."—Washingtonian
  • "Kean delves into a scientific world before modern technology, and tells the stories of people who had sudden changes in personality, felt phantom limbs, pathologically lied, and experienced other mysteries traced back to the brain. He does so with humor and humanity, making the mind-boggling history of neuroscience a fun read."—Nicole Dubowitz, DCist
  • "Crammed with curious anecdotes from neuroscience's gory past."—Nature
  • "Mesmerizing.... With a razor-edged wit and intriguing narrative, the pages are easily devoured, all while Kean explores the deepest labyrinths of the brain."—Mellinda Hensley, Los Angeles Magazine
  • "Dueling Neurosurgeons will confirm Kean's already-solid reputation as a writer who can make anything understandable and interesting.[...] Although hugely entertaining (perhaps especially so in this era of vampire and zombie fascination), Kean's book contains amazingly clear details about our brains."—Winnipeg Free Press
  • "Engrossing, cleverly narrated."—Simon Lewsen, The Globe and Mail
  • "Breezy, informal, entertaining stories that link what we now know of the nervous system to events and personalities of the past."—James W. Kalat, American Psychological Association's PsycCRITIQUES

On Sale
May 6, 2014
Page Count
416 pages

Sam Kean

About the Author

Sam Kean is the New York Times bestselling author of The Bastard Brigade, Caesar's Last Breath (the Guardian's Science Book of the Year), The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, The Violinist's Thumb, and The Disappearing Spoon. He is also a two-time finalist for the PEN / E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. 

His work has appeared in The Best American Science and Nature Writing, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and the New York Times Magazine, among other publications, and he has been featured on NPR's Radiolab, All Things Considered, Science Friday, and Fresh Air. His podcast, The Disappearing Spoon, debuted at #1 on the iTunes science charts. Kean lives in Washington DC.

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