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.