The astonishing domain of neurosurgery
When Bert Keizer was invited to be writer in residence at one of Amsterdam’s university hospitals, he had no hesitation in opting for the neurosurgery department. A philosopher and physician, he has always been fascinated by the question of what happens when one person enters another’s brain, not in the course of a conversation but in the literal sense, breaking and entering during surgery.
A combination of soap, chronicle and philosophical disquisition, his book is in many ways unsettling, although its grimness is undercut by the reckless humour of those with the courage to venture into what is surely the most baffling part of our anatomy.
Perhaps the most uneasy encounters in modern medicine take place in the ward on the day after brain surgery. The patients who run the gauntlet of diagnostic procedures and operations are described here along with their families. Neurosurgery is in some sense a deeply sobering excursion into the outer layers of what we call our ‘mental lives’ and neurosurgeons operate above a unique abyss, since the outcome of their interventions may well be a damaged soul. Keizer has a keen eye for the philosophical implications and he attempts to relate what he sees to the theories of philosophers ranging from Descartes to Alva Noë.
Philosophers have so far failed to come up with anything better than ‘somehow’ when asked about cranial residence, yet neurosurgery proves we are lodged inside our skulls and indeed can be dislodged. We inhabit our brains in a way that does not apply to other organs. Having an inflamed gallbladder may be extremely painful, but we do remain ourselves.
In writing this book, Keizer was guided by a line in a letter by Emily Dickinson from 1880: ‘I am constantly more astonished that the Body contains the Spirit – Except for overmastering work it could not be borne.’ Are we any better able to bear the present-day version, the notion that our mental lives are somehow anchored in our brains?
- An animated, no-holds-barred portrayal of patients and their fate
- Asks critical questions of neurosurgeons about the consequences of their interventions
- Between the lines Keizer addresses the most pertinent questions surrounding the mind-body problem