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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Burning House: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Brain

Reviewed: July 11, 2003
By: Jay Ingram
Publisher: Penguin Books
334 Pages, $14.99

The title refers to a phenomenon called “neglect” in which a damaged brain will not consciously react to things on one side of a person (usually the left side) while apparently still being aware of them at some level. This is just one of the many weird and mysterious things about the workings of the human brain.

The book has six sections, beginning with a description of the physical plant itself, moving on to Neglect and using that as a jumping off point for other topics. Because it’s easier to tell what’s going on in the brain when something isn’t working, a lot of the chapters deal with systems failures which can be traced to specific parts of the brain.

The most bizarre story is probably that of the man known to science as “H.M.” As the result of an experimental operation in the 1950’s, he is unable to form new long term memories and lives from day to day in an eternal present. From this case we learned how complex the different parts of our memory processing may be.

This book has been on my shelves for a few years, but it caught my eye again when I began to pursue the source of the drastic changes that took place in my mother during the last eight months of her life. While it was, of course, troubling to see and hear such things, it was also a spur to reading about them. Some would say that we are what we remember we are, and if that is the case, our identity is a more fragile thing than most of us would care to contemplate.

Ingram’s book is a readable examination of a fascinating subject. Originally printed in 1995, it has been reissued in paperback.

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