I was a super latecomer to the show Grey’s Anatomy. Like, twelve seasons late, but who’s counting? This was when I took an interest in books about the brain. In between sobbing “porque!!!!!???!” at the heavens every few episodes a couple of years ago, I found myself really taken by all of the neurosurgery stuff. There’s something so intriguing about the complex and delicate science of the brain—and how little we really know about it after all these years.
I may or may not have been on my Dr. McDreamy kick when I decided to pick up several books about neuroscience, neurosurgery and neurological conditions/disorders. Since June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, I thought I would share some great reads on this fascinating subject. These six books about the brain are a mix of old favorites and newer reads in nonfiction and fiction. And since a recent study published in the Journal the American Medical Association indicates that reading may decrease your chances of developing dementia, you may just be doing your own brain a little favor.
Brain on Fire by Susan Cahalan
This book blew me away and terrified me a little. It’s the very real and alarming true story of a young woman in her 20s who appears to have a severe mental breakdown from one day to the next. Her condition deteriorates quickly as doctors struggle to accurate diagnose her symptoms. She could have bipolar mania, or schizophrenia, or maybe something else; none of what she’s experiencing fits neatly in any one neat box. Her struggle to find answers will frustrate and unnerve you when at least it’s revealed what the problem really is. You’ll be forced to examine what you know and believe about mental illness and healthcare, as well as what a sublime privilege it is to have access to that care.
Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich
Henry Molaison is the most studied human research subject in the history of neuroscience. Known for most of his life as Patient H.M., he underwent surgery in 1953 at the age of 27 to treat his epilepsy. The procedure, a new and experimental form of lobotomy, failed to eliminate Molaison’s seizures. It did however have an unintended side effect: Patient H.M lost the ability to create long-term memories and thus became a research subject on memory science for 60 years.The surgeon who performed the procedure was author Luke Dittrich’s grandfather. Dittrich shares his grandfather’s story and his experience with Patient H.M. while weaving in the history of “psychosurgery” in this mixture of memoir, science lesson and biography.
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
This engrossing read is one of my favorite books about the brain. It’s by an actual neuroscientist sharing his experiences as a leading brain surgeon at a modern London hospital. From the profound and glorious victories to the spirit-crushing losses, it’s both an informative and very personal collection of anecdotes from a life spent studying and cutting into the brain. This one really did scratch the Grey’s Anatomy itch for me, what with the neurosurgeon angle and his musings on hospital management and drama. Don’t believe me? See my Goodreads from 2016. Ha!
Turn of Mind by Alicia Laplante
I was sucked into this book from the very first few pages. Retired orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jennifer White is battling dementia and all of the life adjustments that come with her diagnosis. When her best friend is killed and found with four of her fingers removed with surgical precision, it is Dr. White who stands accused of her murder. This thriller is well-paced and handles the subject of dementia thoughtfully. It will keep you guessing and also really get you thinking about the frailty of memory.
Goodbye Vitamin by Rachel Kong
Thirty-year-old Ruth’s life isn’t turning out quite the way she’s hoped. After getting dumped by her fiancé, she quits her job and leaves town to help her mother deal with her father’s worsening dementia. Even as I sit here typing this, I’m getting all kinds of teary-eyed: the relationship between Ruth and her father as they both try to navigate their new roles as caretaker and patient is just so tender and heartbreaking and beautiful and dammit where are my tissues???
Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee
This book is told from the alternating points of view of two Chinese American sisters. Miranda is the older, responsible sister and Lucia is the impulsive and headstrong younger sibling. When their mother dies suddenly, Lucia begins to exhibit early signs of mental illness. Miranda tries like always to act as her sister’s protector and rescuer, but Lucia as usual cannot be tamed. She continues to live her life with impetuous abandon until life brings her wandering to a screeching halt. This is a truly moving story about sisters and mental illness. It’s also about choosing to live life on your own terms in the face of otherwise crushing circumstances.