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Book review: Tales from both sides of the brain, by Michael Gazzaniga

I’m introducing a new category of posts: short reviews of neuro-related books I recently read and liked (or didn’t!). I am starting this series with Michael Gazzaniga’s scientific autobiography, which was published earlier this year.

Michael S. Gazzaniga. Tales from both sides of the brain: a life in neuroscience. Ecco, 2015.

book_cover_gazzaniga_talesIn this very enjoyable book, legendary neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga tells of his life in science–and a bit about his life outside science as well.

Why enjoyable? Because Dr. Gazzaniga is a great story-teller; in the book, his stories pleasantly weave together the essential (the inventiveness and drive that led Dr. Gazzaniga to build a neuropsychological testing laboratory, complete with an elaborate stimulus-presentation apparatus called tachistoscope, inside a trailer van in order to go test the patients at their homes) and the anecdotal (the joys of martinis at lunchtime in 1970’s Manhattan, or how to moonlight as a political meeting organizer while a grad student at Caltech).

Why legendary? Dr. Gazzaniga was instrumental in starting the field of cognitive neuroscience (he came up with the term itself) and founded both its Journal and its Society. His numerous studies brought essential insight into the human brain’s higher functions, perhaps most famously regarding the consequences of sectioning the interhemispheric commissures of the brain. Indeed, he was one of the major players in the ground-breaking work on split-brain patients that earned Dr. Roger W. Sperry the Nobel Prize in 1981.

What this book is not is a scientifically complete and concise, third-person summary of the research on split-brain patients; in that sense, I found the title slightly misleading. The subtitle is much more to the point: this is Dr. Gazzaniga’s “professional autobiography”, and we stand right behind him as he describes how his breath is taken away by the results of the first experiments that began to reveal hemispheric specialization in the human brain.

We literally stand right behind Dr. Gazzaniga, since he pioneered the archiving of neuropsychological tests on film. The book includes links to about two dozen movies that illustrate both the ingenuity of the experimental designs and the endlessly fascinating data yielded by split-brain patients.

Throughout the book, I was immensely impressed by Dr. Gazzaniga’s passion, his relentless energy in solving problems and coming up with solutions to help crack the secrets of cognitive function in the two halves of the brain. Despite not having learned as much about split-brain research as I had hoped to, I left the book reinvigorated with respect to my own scientific pursuits. I warmly recommend this book: some of Dr. Gannaziga’s enthusiasm for research is bound to rub off on his readers!