'Conversations With Neil's Brain' Book Review

'Conversations with Neil’s Brain (The Neural Nature of Thought and Language)' is a book by William H. Calvin and George A. Ojemann. It combines fact and fiction to create a modern brain science book written in the form of a novel. The book is written from the perspective of a neurophysiologist - William Calvin, who comes to assist an operation overseen by Dr Ojemann, the surgeon intending to remove a portion of a patient’s temporal lobe. The reason is that this patient suffers from intractable epilepsy seizures, and anticonvulsant drugs do not work. The book also mentions the fact that anticonvulsant medications are ineffective in approximately a quarter of sufferers. The patient is a made-up enthusiastic engineer who was involved in an accident 15 years ago called Neil, and who compiles several different cases and patients. Written in chronological order, the novel describes the process and experience before, during and after this open-brain operation.


The author provides an insight into neuroscience through the character of Neil. Throughout the book, Neil poses many critical and intelligent questions for Calvin and Ojemann. They are a compilation of questions that similar patients have asked Ojemann in the past. The difficulty for the readers decreases as they can identify with this fictional character- a person that has an interest in and is curious about neuroscience but is no expert in the field. This unique narrative style is what ultimately makes it more accessible for the general audience. The book is successful in tackling this daunting task and making it stand out from other similar books that are not as accessible due to the medical references.

An example of a simplified but fundamental question is the following: Neil asks “does that mean there’s a limit to how much our brains can store? If we live too long, do we run out of brain to carve patterns into?”. In an approachable way, Calvin explains that brains are not “inanimate raw materials like wood and stone”. Brains can renew themselves by creating new synapses. What determines the long term memory trace is the strength of those synapses.

The book is written in the first person, and the opening draws readers in. It sets the scene by describing the operation room and a patient that is about to undergo open-brain surgery while conscious. The reason why the patient will have to be conscious is that surgeons will want to know if something goes wrong, as there are no clear lines and divisions in the brain. A faulty tap or cut will cause the person to lose the ability to speak or remember recent events.

There are many complex concepts that the book encompasses; many of them need re-reading. One crucial factor to consider is that the book is quick to assume the readers know the definition of many scientific terms used throughout. The book does provide some explanations for scientific terms like the sulcus and gyrus, however, Calvin does often use words like the Broca’s area in a casual manner and some readers may not follow on without pausing and researching.

Nevertheless, it is vital to acknowledge that the author builds up the difficulty by starting with more straightforward ideas. At the opening scene, the reader is introduced to how the somatosensory system works in the body. 'Conversation with Neil’s Brain' is also organised thematically in chapters. Some notable themes it touches on include memory, consciousness, loss and acquisition of language, psychosis, and lateralisation of the brain. Most of the ideas are transmitted through a conversation Neil has with the neurosurgeon or the neurophysiologist.

An enjoyable feature of this book is that it links neuroscience with different topics like history and biology. The author transmits the importance of health and the fascinating study of the brain. For example, when the characters are discussing the symmetry and structure of the brain, Neil poses the question of whether apes have similar symmetry. The book provides more evidence for evolution and our genetical relation to apes. Calvin explains that features like language can be lateralised in the brain. and that he believes that orangutangs and chimpanzees have this symmetry. This suggests that “one anatomical substrate for language appears earlier in evolution.” The book highlights many experiments and advancements on apes that demonstrate their intelligence. Notably, the author mentions some particularly excelling student bonobos. They were able to understand complex demands like “go to the office and bring back the red ball.” It is efficient to include animal neuroscience research to transmit the idea of the processing of language successfully.

On top of that, former United States president, Woodrow Wilson, had a history of cerebrovascular disorders from a young age. The book mentions the right-brain stroke that Wilson suffered from during the Versailles Peace Conference just after World War I. The facts are that such strokes were capable of changing a person’s thinking and personality. Wilson’s family members saw a change in personality after the stroke in 1896. Following that year, Wilson suffered many strokes and the loss of his wife. The sum of all events could have possibly contributed to the outcomes like the abstention of the USA from the League of Nations and its treaties.

Throughout this book, the authors mention various significant contributors and neuroscientists. At the beginning of the book, when the characters discuss the language ‘areas’. Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke are two scientists that had two areas of the brain named after them. The book proceeds to illustrate and explain what happens when those areas in control of the language are damaged. At the end of some chapters, the authors quote scientists like Howard Gardner and René Descartes. The book acknowledges the contributions of many scientists in these communities and successfully supports many claims they make.


Laura L, Year 12

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