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.

NEXT: Shouting "Screw You" At Prozac

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  1. Ahh… pop neuroscience, one of my favorite genres. Check out The Head Trip by Jeff Warren. Free minds indeed.

  2. They took ur’ jebs!

  3. I can get way too dangerously existential when I start thinking about the way brains work and stuff. Almost like, knowing how it functions will mess it all up or something.

  4. Brian,
    Forgive me for a semi-threadjack, but have you or any Reasonoids reviewed the book, “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions,” by Dan Ariely?
    I just read a review, and I was thinking it must be a great follow-up to the book Reasonoids recently went wild about: “The Myth of the Rational Voter.”


  5. I like The Lucifer Principle from Howard Bloom, which I describe to friends as “an explanation of the evolutionary origins of evil.” (Though I disagree with the book’s take on homeopathy vs. allopathy.) But I suppose that’s more pop evolutionary psychology than pop neuroscience.

  6. Neuro-sci nuts are likely to be interested in evolutionary psychology as well. Both derive their popular appeal from aspiring to explain (and contain) hitherto opaque areas of human behavior. I know that’s why I love pop forms of both sciences, even when writers make doubtful inferences, overreach with some ludicrous single bullet theory or are Stephen Pinker. The whole area of study is a secret pleasure to the “romanticism is bullshit, so what the hell, let’s scientize everything” part of me.

  7. Jennifer,
    I liked The Lucifer Principle so much, I bought a copy! But it was copyright 1995. Surely this topic has made big scientific strides since.
    But I was thinking that some of the conclusions that Dan Ariely was making in his new book reminded me of those made by Howard Bloom.
    Also Ariely’s book would be closer to economics which gets Reasonoids more excited than psycho-babble.


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