- - Thursday, June 28, 2018



By Helen Thomson

HarperCollins Publishers, $27.99, 288 pages

Neuroscience may seem like a drab topic to read about, but there’s an unmistakable grandeur to the way Helen Thomson writes about it that makes “Unthinkable” the perfect exception.

“Unthinkable” tells nine true tales of unusual brain disorders that seem out of this world, making a complex and potentially tedious topic like the human brain vibrant and lively.

Rather than bore readers with unnecessary jargon, Ms. Thomson weaves together the strongest qualities of literature and science to produce an engaging look into the human mind.

As a science journalist, she successfully combines an analytical approach for interpreting results with a fluid and approachable style of writing, so it doesn’t seem like she’s just reciting a series of scientific facts.

She also includes historical evidence that has been studied going back to Ancient Egypt and Greece, and provides more recent stories to provide even further context — mini-histories and science merge throughout the chapters.

Though she has written for news publications like The Guardian, her skills prove that she excels in long-form non-fiction writing, too, developing dense, well-rounded chapters regarding the nine individuals who are the sources of her case studies.

Throughout these chapters, the reader shares brief moments with people like Bob, who can remember with incredible detail every day of his life, and Joel, a doctor who can feel people’s emotions.

Each person is as mesmerizing and unusual as the last. Ms. Thomson makes it possible for the reader to share a memory with one of the nine unique individuals — a true challenge in some scenarios — and also invokes the argument that these stories are integral to the understanding of science.

“Some scientists would argue that focusing on single people and the stories of their lives is far too subjective. I disagree,” Ms. Thomson writes. “True, science prides itself on explaining the parts of our life that can be measured and tested. Objectivity is, rightly so, the backbone of science. But I’d argue that subjectivity is its flesh and blood. Each is necessary but not sufficient alone.”

Though some of these stories have unrelatable or unbelievable qualities to them, Ms. Thomson doesn’t make these people seem like superheroes with incredible gifts or unbelievably delusional patients in a hospital.

For instance, Matar may believe he is a tiger, but he was once a ordinary husband and father. Graham may have thought he was dead for several years, but he didn’t think he was dead his entire life. Louise may feel permanently lost, but she can still find her way to work with a few tricks.

Grounded in a sense of reality, these unusual people are living in situations that anyone can come to understand. By including details of their loved ones or accounts of doctors who have helped them understand their unique brains, Ms. Thomson also brings a sense of recognition from many of these unique characters, who know they experience different lives from those around them.

Mrs. Thomson makes sure to write about the nine unique people she met with care. Mrs. Thomson didn’t meet just 9 unique brains after all, but “a teacher whose memories don’t feel like her own, and the family of an ex-con whose personalities changed overnight […] a woman who lives with a permanent hallucination, and a young journalist who sees colors that don’t exist in real life.”

As Ms. Thomson reveals, the brain is the gateway to memory, personality and perception of others as well as ourselves. However, if there is one slight abnormality, it could suddenly change everything or anything — personality, behavior, emotions, sight, sound and even memory.

Hence, each of these individuals Ms. Thomson describes in her accounts may have one strange quality that would initially seem innate to human beings when in reality, it is controlled by the brain.

While rare brain disorders allow scientists to gain a better understanding of the brain, Ms. Thomson also alludes to another quality that is popular with science — the unknown.

As Ms. Thomson reminds the reader, “our brain is a mystery that has not yet revealed the extent of the unimaginable lands it is capable of producing. And when it does, I think that will be the most romantic story of all.”

Hence, there are still some mystical, unexplainable behaviors with these unique people that are waiting to be unraveled. Rather than leave on a bitter or frustrated note, she leaves the readers with a hopeful and maybe even appreciative understanding for the brain.

Left with a newfound appreciation myself, it seems only right to leave on a similar, hopeful note. Like any good book, “Unthinkable” leaves the reader excited and introspective for what may occur next in the field of science while also aiming an understanding of what has been currently discovered by telling the tales of nine unique lives.

Sophia Acevedo is a sophomore at the University of California, Fullerton, and a summer intern at The Washington Times.

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