Friday Mini Book Review: Head Case


See past mini book reviews.

Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain, by Dennis Cass (HarperCollins, 2007). More in the "sensitive but not too earnest, hapless but not too pathetic" guy non-fiction mode, on a topic that could certainly use some humane and skeptical voices: the graspings of modern neuroscience.

The book is a perfectly entertaining failure; it reads quickly and smoothly as any given Esquire feature (which it resembles in voice and weight) and switches skillfully and entertainingly from the poignant memoir part (the author's troubles coping with the memory of his mentally troubled stepfather) to the wacky participatory journalism parts (he gets his brain scanned, takes Adderall, leads his own psychological research team to a mall).

Cass plays the naif too much to get to any deep conclusions about what we actually understand, and/or can control, about the human brain; this humble voice is appropriate to such a confused and confusing topic. One comes away intrigued with the knowledge that Adderall makes Arby's sandwiches taste even crappier; thinking that his nutty stepdad might have been hell to live with but is pretty interesting to read about; and that perhaps the wisest sentence in the book is "When Bill [the stepdad] talked to me this way he wasn't a brain; he was a shitty dad."

Cass is a good writer who took on an important topic–perhaps a more important topic than he even fully grasped. Sometimes contemplating neuroscience and its curious and troubling connection to the humane life–its advances, its imperialism, its reductionism, its tautologies–I think it must demand either slavish obedience or rebellious resistance. Doubtless, that's a limbic reaction. A middle way is surely more sensible, more responsible, more defensible. Cass takes that middle way, and proves that, at least when it comes to popular journalism, that middle path is alas far less fascinating.