Brain Memoirs, Neuroscience, and the Self: A Review Article
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Brain Memoirs, Neuroscience, and the Self:
A Review Article
Antonio Damasio. Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. New York: Pantheon, 2010. 384 pp. Clothbound, $28.95.
Howard Dully and Charles Fleming. My Lobotomy. New York: Crown-Random House, 2007. 288 pp. Paperback, $13.95.
Siri Hustvedt. The Shaking Woman, or a History of My Nerves. New York: Henry Holt, 2009. 224 pp. Paperback, $15.00.
Alva Noë.Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. New York: Hill and Wang-Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2009232 pp. Paperback, $15.00.
Alix Kates Shulman. To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. 192 pp. Paperback, $14.00.
Jill Bolte Taylor. My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Viking-Penguin, 2006. 224 pp. Paperback, $15.00.

In 1960, twelve-year-old Howard Dully endured a transorbital lobotomy, involving the insertion of a surgical instrument through his eye socket to sever connections between his frontal cortex and the rest of his brain. In 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain anatomist, witnessed her own disorientation when she suffered a stroke one morning as she prepared [End Page 171] to go to work. In 2004, Alix Kates Shulman awoke in the middle of the night to find her husband unconscious after having fallen from the loft bed in the remote coastal cabin she used as a writing retreat. In 2006, Siri Hustvedt felt and watched her body convulse, her arms flail, and her skin discolor while she delivered a eulogy at a memorial for her father. These shocking experiences frightened Dully, Taylor, Shulman, and Hustvedt—but they also fascinated them—because they made philosophical or abstract questions about the connections between body, mind, self, and world physically and experientially concrete. All four have written brain memoirs that document their suffering and fascination, chronicles of the push-pull between their selves and their brains. In the case of all four writers, the relations between self and brain they chronicle aren’t simply changed by brain disease or injury, but are continuously changing in reaction to altered brain function and the writers’ living responses to their physiological conditions—including, crucially, writing about them.

Of course, there is a long tradition of autobiographical writing that chronicles mind-body relationships and their implications for selfhood, including the work of Augustine, Montaigne, Thomas De Quincey, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf. Brain memoirs can be understood as the most recent incarnation of this longstanding tradition, though their explicit focus on the brain—and on the writer as organism—is more pointed than that of their predecessors. Like Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman (2009), some of these recent memoirs chronicle the lived experience of their authors’ “neurodiversity,” including Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness (1995), Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures (1996) and Emergence (1996), Daniel Tammet’s Born on a Blue Day (2007), Tim Page’s Parallel Play (2009), and Lauren Slater’s Prozac Diary (1999) and Lying (2001). Like Charles Dully’s My Lobotomy (2007), some chronicle the aftermath or recovery from brain illness or injury, including Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight (2010) and Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (1998). Like Alix Kates Shulman’s To Love What Is (2009), some tell stories of caregivers or family living with a person suffering from brain injury or disease, including David B’s Epileptic (2006), Jonathan Franzen’s essay “My Father’s Brain” (2001), and John Bayley’s Elegy for Iris (1999). Others tell pharmacological or addiction stories about the capacity of drugs to alter body chemistry to shape the contours of a personality, including Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story (1997), Bill Clegg’s Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man (2010), Elizabeth Wurtzel’s More, Now, Again (2002), and Stephen Elliot’s The Adderall Diaries (2009). Still [End Page 172] others investigate the distinctive features or idiosyncrasies of so-called “neurotypicals,” including Steven Johnson’s Mind Wide Open (2005) and Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop (2008...