• The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

  • The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery
  • By: Sam Kean
  • Narrated by: Henry Leyva
  • Length: 12 hrs and 36 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Release date: 05-27-14
  • Language: English
  • Publisher: Hachette Audio
  • 4.5 (631 ratings)

Regular price: $30.79

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Publisher's Summary

The author of the best seller The Disappearing Spoon reveals the secret inner workings of the brain through strange-but-true stories.

Early studies of the human brain used a simple method: Wait for misfortune to strike - strokes, seizures, infectious diseases, horrendous accidents - and see how victims coped. In many cases their survival was miraculous, if puzzling. Observers were amazed by the transformations that took place when different parts of the brain were destroyed, altering victims' personalities. Parents suddenly couldn't recognize their own children. Pillars of the community became pathological liars. Some people couldn't speak but could still sing.

In The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, Sam Kean travels through time with stories of neurological curiosities: Phantom limbs, Siamese twin brains, viruses that eat patients' memories, blind people who see through their tongues. He weaves these narratives together to create a story of discovery that reaches back to the 1500s and the high-profile jousting accident that inspired this book's title.* With the lucid, masterful explanations and razor-sharp wit his fans have come to expect, Kean explores the brain's secret passageways and recounts the forgotten tales of the ordinary people whose struggles, resilience, and deep humanity made neuroscience possible.

*"The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons" refers to the case of French king Henri II, who in 1559 was lanced through the skull during a joust, resulting in one of the most significant cases in neuroscience history. For hundreds of years scientists have gained important lessons from traumatic accidents and illnesses, and such misfortunes still represent their greatest resource for discovery.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your My Library section along with the audio.

©2014 Sam Kean (P)2014 Hachette Audio

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  • Michael
  • Walnut Creek, CA, United States
  • 05-06-15

Detailed but not overly Technical

This book comes with a PDF, but it is not too critical to the book. There are little puzzles for each chapter that involves piecing together pictures, letters, and sounds to form a hidden word or phrase, which are mentioned at the start of each chapter, and are mildly interesting but not at all necessary for understanding the material. There are also pictures of where the various parts of the brain are, but again, interesting but not critical.

The book is written for the layman and not overly technical. It covers a bunch on interesting neurological case studies, most of which have been covered in other books. However, Kean does an excellent job of research, and exposition, getting to the essence of the case studies without too much technical detail. I tend to like a lot of technical detail, but I enjoyed this book quite a bit anyway. The stories are interesting, and a number of details that were misreported elsewhere are corrected and clarified here.

The author has a quite graphic style (some might say too graphic). The book is often discussing in vivid detail oozing, infected, dissected, projected, extracted, rotting brain tissue. This did not bother me, but it may be more than some listeners would expect.

If you don’t mind a little grossness, I think most listeners will enjoy this book and at least get something to think about.

The narration is excellent, very upbeat and high energy, without being sappy.

There are other books on this subject, that I think I learned more from, but none that I enjoyed more, plus this made several subtle, yet important, points not presented elsewhere and corrected commonly misreported stories that I thought I knew.

27 of 27 people found this review helpful

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History and neuroscience in a favourable mix

An effective way to learn a subject or learn about a new scientific discipline is to study its history. A historical approach will give you a deeper understanding of how observations and ideas developed into the theories we have today. An added benefit is that a historical approach makes you feel clever, because let's face it, whatever the subject people used to have some very strange ideas. The history of neuroscience, which is still I would say in its infancy, has many prime examples of historical folly.

The fascinating stories told in this book stretches all the way back into medieval times, specifically to King Henry V and his death caused by an intracranial hemorrhage in 1559. From there, the book goes to the inflammatory debate between the Sparks and the Soups. The Sparks claimed that neurons were physically connected and transmitted electrical impulses whereas the soups argued that there were gaps between neurons and that they communicated using signaling molecules crossing these gaps. (The answer, as is often the case, is somewhere in between because some neurons are physically connected via so-called gap junctions although the norm is that neurons communicate using signal molecules as the Soups argued.)

Many of patients that the reader meets in this book are also described in your average neuroscience\neuropsychology textbook. The major difference between this book and the textbooks is that here the author is not trying to bore you to death. Sam Kean knows what makes a story entertaining and he does not shy away from providing juicy details for fear of appearing unscholarly.

For example, we meet the infamous 'Tan Tan' who, independent of the question asked, answered: “Tan Tan” except when he was furious and he suddenly gained access to a larger vocabulary (especially curse words). One thing you don't read in textbooks is that Tan Tan was often kind of an egotistical jerk who stole things from other mental patients around him.

Another patient celebrity is Phineas Gage, who got a metal rod right through his head and brain but somehow survived. It turned out that his moral intuition was damaged, however. The squeamish reader might want to skip this chapter because it also describes the immediate aftermath where his doctor scooped up some of Gage’s brain with his bare hands, having difficulties deciding what to do with the gore. We also meet SM, who, a patient who following the removal of her amygdala, had a desire to pet venomous snakes even though she claimed to be afraid of them. My favorite case though is that of Supreme Court Justice Douglas, who got a stroke and became paralyzed but then insisted, privately and publicly (and probably to himself), that he was not paralyzed. When probed on why he sat in a wheelchair he claimed that didn't feel like standing up or something like that.

There are many many more persons/patient described in this book, and I do not want to spoil too much of the book which is a must-read for people interested in what happens when the brain do not function normally. The elegant mixture of case reports, contemporary theories, and modern neuroscience results in an excellent book that is both entertaining and educational.

19 of 20 people found this review helpful

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Facinating and engaging

Where does The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

This was one of my favorite books to listen to. The story is told with humour and a keen eye to the incredible reality of these tales.

What did you like best about this story?

The depth of the stories told. They were all so very facinating.

8 of 8 people found this review helpful

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witty, delightful and informative

Nonfiction works like this keep me hooked on audio books. The Narrator does an outstanding job. The material is scientific, but the author adds fascinating history and amusing anecdotes to make it interesting and humorous. The Narrator captures every bit of the humor with just the right timing and delivery.

7 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating history of neurological discovery

What did you love best about The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons?

I liked the tie-ins between real, individual historical cases of illness and those who discovered the neurological causes of those problems, developing treatments along the way through the process of experimentation, of trial and error.

What was one of the most memorable moments of The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons?

Too many to list. I was fascinated by each case and by the doctors and scientists who treated the patients, developing theories of why they were ill and pioneering treatments to aleviate their conditions.

What about Henry Leyva’s performance did you like?

So well read! His narration was excellent and held my attention throughout.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

Mapping the Maze of the Brain.

Any additional comments?

I listened to this audio book twice before moving on to anything else. The book is rich with insights into the structure and operation of the brain, told in an historical context. It describes the eons during which little at all was known about the complex organ lodged between our ears and moves forward in time through illuminating cases and discoveries. This book should be of interest to those who are medically inclined as well as to anyone curious about the brain and how it works.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Traci
  • VERNON, NJ, United States
  • 10-16-14

Kept me engaged for its entirety

I was a fan of "The violinist's thumb," by Sam Kean so I was happy he had another book I could listen to. This isn't a light "read" for it goes into details about the human brain that might otherwise get lost if you're not paying close attention at parts. Many of his stories kept me listening, (I commute long distances) sometimes while sitting in my driveway. If you have any interest in the subject, I'd recommend it.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Outstanding!!

What made the experience of listening to The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons the most enjoyable?

There are very few books that merit a 5 star rating. There are even fewer narrations of books that deserve 5 star ratings. This book is that delicious juxtaposition of incredible narration and tight, well-paced writing.

What did you like best about this story?

I disliked that it ended so soon. I also wish the author had delved further into some of the cases to give the reader a deeper glimpse into the patients' regular lives

What about Henry Leyva’s performance did you like?

Excellent, well-paced narration. Neither breathy nor dramatic, Mr Leyva imparted just the right gravitas for the subject matter.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

Other than a documentary, this book wouldn't translate into film.

Any additional comments?

This author and narrator have an excellent thing going. I hope they work together in future, and that the author write more on this topic. The author makes the subject matter accessible to regular minds like mine.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Pony
  • Atlanta
  • 08-30-14

Delightful and Educational

Same Kean provided another work full of science and history and wonderful story telling. Great case stories and he is able to fully develop historial figures in these case stories. Anybody who is learning about neuroscience should enjoy it.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Diane
  • Louisville, KY, United States
  • 07-14-17

Battles of the Brain

As Sam Kean points out, much of our understanding of the brain has come about through the misfortunes of others who have suffered a brain injury or malformation with the attendant, often strange, disabilities or transformations that have occurred as a result. This is a collection of those stories, how they were handled at the time, the debates and conflicts they engendered and what neuroscience has learned from them. Whether it be the loss of all ability to form short term memories, the acquisition of new skills/obsessions, "seeing" through sound or touch or phantom limb pain, these cases have pointed the way to new knowledge as to how the brain works.

Much of the material will be somewhat familiar to those who have had an interest in the subject and personally I prefer the books written by Oliver Sachs. Nevertheless this was an engaging and informative listen.

*One general comment about the pdfs that accompany books such as this one. I have found them to contain only the smallest sliver of information and to be simplistic to the point of uselessness--even patronizing in their cartoonish format. If you are gong to to go to the trouble of making a pdf available, please make it one that respects the reader and actually enhances our understanding of the book's content!!

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Slow Starter... no Disappearing Spoon

What did you like best about The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons? What did you like least?

The insights and the stories behind the human conscientious were much needed about three quarters of the way through the book.

What was most disappointing about Sam Kean’s story?

I like how Sam wraps the information he is presenting into a neat package with the backstory included. He did it exceptionally well in The Disappearing Spoon, but this book was just hard to get into, especially at first.

If this book were a movie would you go see it?

I feel like certain parts of this book have already been portrayed in the movies. It certainly was familiar at times.

Any additional comments?

Pretty good book, but I probably had my hopes set too high after listening to The Disappearing Spoon. This book was filled with complicated and protracted concepts that were hard to follow along with in the audio format. I think I would have found more enjoyment in reading the print copy of this book, instead of listening to it.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful